Pope Francis' 2020: the power of prayer in times of pandemic
By Isabella Piro
Sunday, 8 March 2020, can be seen as a symbolic line that separates the 'before' and the 'after' of a unique year in many respects.
It is the date when, for the first time, Pope Francis’ Angelus was streamed live from the Library of the Apostolic Palace. The lockdown imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic was imminent.
"It is a bit strange this Angelus prayer today, with the Pope 'caged' in the Library, but I see you, I am close to you," the Pope said, as he linked up with the world. That event concluded with him looking out of the window to bless St. Peter's Square.
None of us imagined the months to come in which that Square would become empty and silent as never before. Filled only with Pope Francis’ prayers and hopes for the world.
St. Peter’s Square would also provide the stark setting for the “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer" in times of pandemic on the evening of 27 March, a Lenten Friday in which, alone in the pouring rain, Pope Francis invited humanity not to be afraid and to entrust themselves to the Lord with the words: "We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love."
Prayer and healing
The themes of “Prayer” and of the “health emergency” echoed throughout the Pope’s catecheses during the General Audiences of 2020: to the former, the Pope dedicated an entire cycle between 6 May and 7 October. And then, he reflected on the theme “Healing the world," with one particular meditation on 19 August on the importance of universal access to vaccines. A third cycle of catecheses, from January to the end of April, was dedicated to the Beatitudes. All in all, throughout the year Pope Francis will have held 46 General Audiences and he will have recited the Angelus and the Regina Coeli 58 times, never ceasing to find the occasion to launch numerous appeals for peace. On 19 July, for example, he said: " I renew the appeal for a global and immediate ceasefire that would allow the peace and safety that are indispensable in order to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance.” And between 9 March and 18 May, when churches in Italy were closed to the public to curb the spread of infections, the Pope authorized the live streaming of morning Mass presided over by him every day at 7am in the Casa Santa Marta. The last such broadcast was held in St. Peter’s Basilica on the morning of 18 May, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II.
Fratelli tutti & Querida Amazonia
2020 is also the year of Pope Francis' third Encyclical: on 4 October, "Fratelli tutti" was published. In it the Pope indicates fraternity and social friendship as primary ways to build a better world. On 12 February he released the Apostolic Exhortation "Querida Amazonia" resulting from the Special Synod for the Pan-amazon region held in October 2019. The text represents Francis' wish for a Church with “an Amazonian face” and traces new paths of evangelization and care for the environment. This year also saw the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis' second Encyclical, "Laudato si'," celebrated, on 18 June with the document "Journeying towards Care for Our Common Home” prepared by the “Holy See Interdicastery Roundtable on Integral Ecology. “This was followed on 24 May with the launch of a special "Laudato sì Year” and with a video message, on 12 December, from Pope Francis to participants at a “High Level Virtual Climate Ambition Summit” in which he reiterated the Vatican's commitment to reduce net emissions to zero before 2050.
Among the Apostolic Letters of 2020, "Patris corde", issued on 8 December, stands out. It came exactly 150 years after Blessed Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Patron Saint of the Catholic Church and preceded the special “Year of St Joseph” that will conclude on 8 December 2021. During the Angelus of 7 December Pope Francis announced that the "Amoris Laetitia Family" Year will be inaugurated on 19 March 2021, and will end on 26 June 2022, with the 10th World Meeting of Families, scheduled to take place in Rome.
During the year that is coming to an end a number of special celebrations presided over by the Holy Father are worth remembering: on 26 January in the Vatican Basilica, the Mass for the first Sunday of the Word of God, instituted by the Pope in 2019; on the evening of 10 April St. Peter's Square provided the setting for the Way of the Cross, written by inmates of a prison in northern Italy. At the end of the rite, the Pope made no speech, but his prayerful silence was stronger than any words. The same silence, full of faith, accompanied him, months later, in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna where in the first light of dawn on 8 December, he gathered in prayer at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
On 12 April, Easter Sunday, Pope Francis presided over Mass in an almost empty St. Peter’s Basilica and pronounced the “Urbi et Orbi” before the Altar of Confession. On that same day, the dramatic situation in Cabo Delgado, in Mozambique, was brought to international attention: among the various appeals for peace in his Message to the city and to the world, there is also one for the north-eastern province of the African country suffering from three years of violent conflict. It was as if the Pope had put Cabo Delgado on the world map at that moment. St Peter’s Basilica was also where the Solemnity of Christ the King was celebrated on 22 November; during that ceremony the Cross and the Marian Icon, symbols of World Youth Day, were handed over from the young people of Panama, the host country of WYD 2019, to the young people of Lisbon, the city that will host the event in 2023. For the occasion, the Pope established that diocesan celebrations of WYD be transferred from Palm Sunday to Christ the King Sunday.
From the point of view of reforms, Francis signed several documents during the past year: in March he promulgated the CCCLI law on the judicial system of Vatican City State, which replaces the one that has been in force since 1987, giving greater independence to magistrates. On 1 June the Motu proprio "on transparency, control and competition in the procedures for awarding public contracts of the Holy See and Vatican City State" was followed, on 5 December, by the new Statute of the Financial Information Authority, which became the Financial Information and Supervision Authority. Finally, on 28 December, with the Motu proprio "Regarding certain competencies in economic and financial matters", the management of funds and properties of the Secretariat of State, including Peter’s Pence, was transferred to APSA (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See). This implies the strengthening of the supervisory role of the Secretariat for the Economy which will take on the function of Papal Secretariat for economic and financial matters. Also significant is, on 22 October, the renewal for two years of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China, signed in Beijing in 2018 and concerning the appointment of bishops. The extension was followed, on 24 November, by the appointment of a new prelate, Msgr Thomas Chen Tianhao, who will lead the diocese of Qingdao.
Also in November, the "Report on the Holy See's. Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal. Theodore Edgar McCarrick" was published on Tuesday 10. The former cardinal, dismissed from the clerical state in 2019 after having been found guilty of child sexual abuse, is the subject of an extensive dossier prepared by the Secretariat of State upon request of the Pope. Pope Francis himself spoke about it during the General Audience on 11 November: " “Yesterday, the report on the sad case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was published. I renew my closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and the Church's commitment to eradicate this evil."
Towards the end of 2020 the composition of the College of Cardinals underwent change following the 7th Consistory of his pontificate on 28 November during which Francis created 13 new cardinals, calling them to their new posts from the peripheries of the world, with countries such as Brunei and Rwanda becoming part of the "geography" of the College of Cardinals for the first time.
2020, moreover, was the year in which the Pope was unable to embark on apostolic visits abroad. On 23 February he went to the southern Italian city of Bari for a meeting of reflection and spirituality entitled "The Mediterranean, A Frontier of Peace". This is where he invoked peace and brotherhood, describing war as “a kind of folly to which we cannot resign ourselves. Never." And on 3 October he travelled to Assisi for a private visit, and there, on the tomb of Saint Francis, signed his Encyclical "Fratelli tutti" that was released the following day.
During these 12 months, the Pope recorded numerous video messages, including those of 25 September and 10 December. In the first, Francis addresses the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations issuing a strong warning to the international community to end the arms race, protect the rights of migrants and rethink economic and financial systems. He also condemned abortion as an "essential humanitarian service". The second video message was addressed to participants in an online meeting organized by the Dicastery for the Promoting Integral Human Development on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq saying: "We must work to ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continues to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development, and reconciliation between peoples."
And it is precisely Iraq that will project Pope Francis' pontificate towards 2021. In fact, on 7 December it was announced that he will visit Iraq from 5 to 8 March. It is a journey that he strongly desires, so much so as to have expressed his intention to visit the nation during an audience with participants in a Meeting of Aid Agencies that provide aid to the Oriental Churches back in June 2019. Another signal in this direction came on 25 January 2020 when the Pope received in private audience Barham Salih, President of the Republic of Iraq, the nation that will be seen as providing a passage between a year that ends and a year that begins as a harbinger of hope.