The first global pandemic of the digital age arrived suddenly. The world was stopped in its tracks by an unnatural suspension of activity that interrupted business and pleasure. “For weeks now it has been evening. 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 in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost.” These are the words Pope Francis used to portray the unprecedented situation. He pronounced them on March 27 before a completely empty Saint Peter’s Square, during an evening of Eucharistic adoration and an Urbi et Orbi blessing that was accompanied only by the sound of church bells mixed with ambulance sirens: the sacred and the pain.
The pope has also stated that this crisis period caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is “ a propitious time to find the courage for a new imagination of the possible, with the realism that only the Gospel can offer us.”
The thick darkness, then, allows us to find the courage to imagine. How was it possible to send out such a message in a moment of depression and fear? We are accustomed to the probable, to what our minds suppose should happen, statistically speaking. However, we often lack the vision of the possible, which is sometimes confined to the world of the imagination. We are not accustomed to dwelling in possibility, to use the words of Emily Dickinson. So we need a “realism” that breaks our “fixed or failing patterns, modes and structures” and inspires us to imagine a different world, “making all things new,” as the Book of Revelation says. “Are we willing to change our lifestyles?” the pope asks.
Francis and contagion in a slowed down world
It is clear that there is a compelling need to understand what is happening to us, to give a human and spiritual reading of what we are living. For Francis, “understanding what God is saying to us at this time of pandemic also represents a challenge for the Church’s mission.” It is also clear that we must first of all understand what we have done wrong. The pope, as a truly global leader, the only one at the moment recognized as such even in unsuspected quarters, has spoken of a seriously ill planet, of planetary injustices caused by an economy that aims only at profit, of international conflicts that today must be brought to an immediate end, and of embargoes and national selfishness. The pandemic has unmasked our vulnerability and the false and unnecessary security with which we have built our agendas, our projects, our habits and our priorities.
Change will occur if there is a chemical reaction between the “overflowing proclamation” of the Gospel and life “as it comes.” This is what generates the “renewing outlook” that we need today. We are not called “to restart” in order to return to the normality of a golden age that in reality never was golden, but instead “to start anew.” The narratives of the restart are harmful, because they naturally tend to restore balances that must change. We need a new beginning.
The coronavirus is, in its own way, an alien. Or rather, by invading our bodies, it suddenly has changed the way we look at things; it forced us to see with an unaccustomed perspective, and we saw the world turned upside down. From that empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27, Francis spoke of a “necessary immunity.” But this is because the virus has become a metaphor that reveals a “sick world.” Immunity to the virus becomes the image of the necessary immunity to the evil of the world. Even the pandemic can be metaphorically overturned in its own destructive meaning and understood as a “contagion of hope.”