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Pope Francis at one of his few General Audiences with the faithful present Pope Francis at one of his few General Audiences with the faithful present  Editorial

Pope Francis’ nearness in a year of social-distance

Despite not making a single Apostolic Journey and holding most of his General Audiences without the presence of the faithful during the year 2020, Pope Francis accompanied countless people—believers and non—around the world with live-streamed Mass in the Casa Santa Marta.

By Andrea Tornielli

The year 2020 for Pope Francis, like that of each of us, was deeply marked by the pandemic.

He made no international trips, and held only a few General Audiences with the faithful present at the end of the summer, before a second wave of coronavirus infections brought them to an end once more. His public celebrations were held with slimmed-down participation of the faithful. It was a year marked by the lack of daily personal contact—made up of physical closeness in the form of hugs, handshakes, whispered words with teary eyes, blessings, and encounters.

Even Pope Francis, in his own way, carried out his mission in smart-working, as he stayed home, connected virtually, and increased the phone calls he made.

Glimmers of hope in the darkness

Pope Francis' year was also marked by the words of the exhortation Querida Amazonia, which encapsulated the discernment carried out at the October 2019 Synod of Bishops. It was published on the eve of the pandemic’s outbreak, and offered a forceful call to pay attention to what is happening in that forgotten region. In it, he indicated concrete ways toward a human ecology which takes into account the poor, and gave value to cultures and a missionary Church with an Amazonian face.

Then, as soon as Covid-19 seemed to grant a reprieve, at least in Italy, Pope Francis resumed his General Audiences with the faithful, offering a cycle of catechesis on the kind of future we want to build after the pandemic.

Finally, in October, he gave the Church the gift of a new encyclical, Fratelli tutti, which points to fraternity and social friendship as the answer to the shadows of hatred, violence, and selfishness which seem to prevail in our world plagued not only by the coronavirus, but by wars, injustice, poverty and climate change.

Extraordinary Urbi et Orbi

However, the past year’s most symbolic event, which will remain in our collective memory, was that of 27 March, when the Pope gave his Statio Orbis, praying to God to intervene and help humanity terribly afflicted by the pandemic.

Pope Francis stood alone, in the rain, in a desolate St. Peter's Square—empty as never before, yet at the same time never so full, thanks to millions and millions of people connected throughout the world by television to pray in silence.

The Pope slowly ascended the wide steps to reach the parvis, and reminded us that we are all in the same boat, unable to save ourselves alone. He kissed the feet of the Crucifix of St. Marcellus, a cross which Romans have carried in procession against the plague.

The Pope then blessed the city and the world with the Blessed Sacrament, while an eerie ambulance siren filled the air in an Eternal City paralyzed by the lockdown.

Daily Mass with the Pope

Yet there was another daily event—less visually striking but more important—which allowed Pope Francis to accompany millions of people around the world during the first part of 2020, a time filled with fear and bewilderment.

It was his daily Mass celebrated in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta at 7 AM.

For three months the Successor of Peter knocked softly on the doors of our homes, invited us not to listen to great speeches or long catecheses, but first of all to the words of Scripture. He would comment briefly on the Word of God and, after the Eucharistic celebration, pray in silent Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

Each morning—or noon or evening, depending on the time zone—countless people including non-practicing Christians and non-believers, tuned in to the radio, TV, and live-streams to listen to the message of the Gospel and the voice of the Bishop of Rome, who had become the parish priest of the world.

Nearness to people of God

The sobriety of those celebrations, preceded by brief prayers for the categories of people most affected by Covid-19, kept us company, offered glimmers of hope, helped us pray, and made us all feel less alone, less isolated, less abandoned.

Pope Francis’ nearness to God’s people—his daily accompaniment through Mass shared on screens throughout the world—made clear what it means for the Pope to be the shepherd of the universal Church, an intercessor for a wounded humanity, and a witness to the Gospel which is at work in the entire human family in so many ways which are often unpredictable and hidden.

29 December 2020, 10:00