Pope Francis speaks into the 'thick darkness' of Covid-19
IN normal times, St Peter's Square in the Vatican is guaranteed to be packed with the faithful when a Pope delivers any sort of address.
But these are extraordinary times. In another sign of how the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, Pope Francis gave an Urbi et Orbi blessing - normally only given 'to the city and the world' at Christmas and Easter - to an empty, rain-soaked square on Friday evening.
It was part of the Pope's spiritual response to Covid-19 - he was also involved in an ecumenical prayer initiative this week - and in his meditation he reflected on Jesus' words to his disciples: "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?"
"For weeks now it has been evening," said the Pope.
"Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice it in people's gestures, their glances give them away."
The current air of fear and anxiety was similar to that experienced by the disciples who were in the boat when a storm threatened to engulf it while Jesus slept, and asked him if he didn't care if they perished.
But the Pope said that Jesus "more than anyone, cares about us".
The coronavirus storm exposes "our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules", he said, as well as "all those attempts to anaesthetise ourselves".
Francis, who has twice tested negative for the virus, suggested that the pandemic was the time of "our judgment" - "a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not."
"Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick."
The ceremony included the offer of a plenary indulgence to "the faithful suffering from coronavirus, as well as to health care workers, family members and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, care for them".
A plenary indulgence is a feature of the Catholic tradition in which a person's sins are forgiven in return for performing an action - in this case, watching or listening to the Urbi et Orbi blessing.