Pope Francis has praised Rome’s priests for remaining close to their flocks as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Italy.
In a 3,000-word letter dated May 31 and marking Pentecost Sunday, the pope expressed his deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by clergy during the crisis.
“As a priestly community we were not strangers to this reality and we did not look at it from the window; drenched in the storm that raged, you made an effort to be present and accompany your communities: you saw the wolf coming and did not flee or abandon the flock,” he said, according to an unofficial translation of the letter provided by the Holy See press office.
In the letter, released May 30, the pope noted that he had been unable to address priests at this year’s Chrism Mass, which was due to take place on Holy Thursday but was postponed due to the pandemic.
The pope, who is Bishop of Rome, said he wished to share his vision for the future with his brothers in the priesthood.
“The new phase we are beginning asks us for wisdom, foresight and common commitment, so that all the efforts and sacrifices made so far will not be in vain,” he wrote.
He thanked priests for sharing their recent experiences with him via telephone and email.
He said: “Although it was necessary to maintain social distancing, this did not prevent us from strengthening the sense of belonging, fellowship and mission which helped us to ensure that charity, especially with the most disadvantaged people and communities, was not quarantined.”
“I was able to see, in those sincere dialogues, that the necessary distance was not synonymous with withdrawal or isolation of the self that anesthetizes, sedates and extinguishes the mission. Encouraged by these exchanges, I am writing to you because I want to be closer to you, in order to accompany, share and confirm your journey.”
The pope drew a parallel between the Church in Rome today and the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem before Pentecost. The first apostolic community, he said, “also lived through moments of confinement, isolation, fear and uncertainty.”
He wrote: “We have suffered the sudden loss of family, neighbors, friends, parishioners, confessors, points of reference of our faith. We saw the disconsolate faces of those who could not stay close and say goodbye to their loved ones in their last hours. We have seen the suffering and helplessness of the health workers who, exhausted, spent themselves in endless days of work, worried about having to respond to so many requests.”
“We have all felt the insecurity and fear of workers and volunteers who exposed themselves to risk on a daily basis to ensure that essential services were provided; and also to accompany and care for those who, because of their exclusion and vulnerability, were suffering even more from the consequences of this pandemic.”
“We have heard and seen the difficulties and discomforts of social confinement: loneliness and isolation, especially of the elderly; anxiety, anguish and a sense of a lack of protection in the face of job and housing uncertainty; violence in and pressure on relationships.”
“The ancestral fear of contagion has once again struck hard. We have also shared the distressing concerns of entire families who do not know what to put on their plates the following week.”
Faced with this suffering, the pope said, priests experienced a sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
“The unpredictability of the situation highlighted our inability to live with and face the unknown, which we cannot govern or control, and like everyone else, we felt confused, frightened, helpless,” he wrote.
Clergy were unable to serve the people in the way they had become accustomed to, the pope noted.
“The complexity of what had to be faced did not allow for ‘recipes’ or textbook answers; it required much more than easy exhortations or edifying speeches, incapable of taking root and consciously taking on everything that concrete life demanded of us,” he said.
“The pain of our people hurt us, their uncertainties afflicted us, our common fragility stripped us of any false idealistic or spiritualistic complacency, as well as any attempt at puritanical escape.”
Pope Francis suggested that the coronavirus crisis had shaken society’s most basic assumptions.
“The narrative of a society of prophylaxis, imperturbable and always ready for indefinite consumption, has been questioned, revealing the lack of cultural and spiritual immunity to conflict,” he wrote.
The pandemic posed urgent questions, he said, and they could not be answered simply by resuming activities put on hold during the lockdown.
He wrote that “it will be indispensable to develop a way of listening which is attentive but full of hope, serene but tenacious, constant but not anxious, which can prepare and pave the way for the Lord’s call to us.”
He urged priests to resist the temptation to withdraw into “brooding” over the devastation wrought by the pandemic, as well as the trap of an “unlimited optimism” that refused to accept the true extent of the damage.
He wrote: “There are many temptations, typical of this time, that can blind us and make us cultivate certain feelings and attitudes that do not allow hope to stimulate our creativity, our ingenuity and our ability to respond.”
“From wanting to honestly take on board the gravity of the situation, but trying to resolve it only with substitute or palliative activities, waiting for everything to return to ‘normal,’ ignoring the deep wounds and the number of people who have fallen in the meantime; until we are immersed in a certain paralyzing nostalgia for the recent past that makes us say ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ and makes us incapable of inviting others to dream of and develop new ways and styles of life.”
The pope encouraged clergy to fix their gaze on the Resurrection in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“If an invisible, silent, expansive and viral presence has put us in crisis and caused us upheaval, let this other discreet, respectful and non-invasive Presence call us again and teach us not to be afraid to face reality,” he wrote.
“If an impalpable presence has been able to disrupt and overturn the priorities and seemingly irremovable global agendas that so suffocate and devastate our communities and our sister earth, let us not fear that it is the presence of the Risen One that traces our path, opens horizons and gives us the courage to live this historic and unique moment.”
Returning to the theme of Pentecost, he described the Apostles as “a handful of fearful men” who were nevertheless able to release “a new current” into the world.
“Let us be surprised once again by the Risen One,” he said. “May it be He, from His wounded side, a sign of how harsh and unjust reality becomes, who pushes us not to turn our backs on the harsh and difficult reality of our brothers and sisters.”
In conclusion, the pope encouraged Rome’s clergy to “take responsibility for the future and plan it as brothers.”
“We place in the wounded hands of the Lord, as a holy offering, our fragility, the fragility of our people, that of all humanity,” he wrote.