April 10, 2020

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Pope Francis reflects on storms caused by the coronavirus pandemic

(En Espanol)

“The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. 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” (Pope Francis, Urbi et Orbi message, March 27, 2020).

On March 27, Pope Francis stood in the empty square outside St. Peter’s Basilica and proclaimed “to the city and the world” (“urbi et orbi”) that, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, our hope is found in the calm, healing power of Jesus Christ. The pope’s message reflects on a reading from St. Mark’s Gospel (Mk 4:35-41), which recalls the time that Jesus and his disciples were in a boat when a sudden, turbulent storm threatened to upend the boat and drown them all.

Here is how Pope Francis describes this situation:

The disciples are terrified, but Jesus is sleeping calmly in the stern, in the part of the boat that sinks first. In spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father; this is the only time in the Gospels we see Jesus sleeping. When he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, he turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”  

More than simply being afraid, which the pope says is natural under the circumstances, the disciples lash out at Jesus saying, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mk 4:38). In their self-centered terror, they accuse Jesus of not caring about them. “One of the things that hurts us and our families most,” the Holy Father points out, “is when we hear it said: ‘Do you not care about me?’ It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts.”

Because Jesus cares so deeply about his disciples, and all of us, the disciples’ childishly immature question, “Do you not care if we perish?” is not only hurtful and inappropriate, it is a sign of the weakness of their faith. How many times before has Jesus demonstrated the depths of his love for them? How often has he performed miracles of healing and hope in the most seemingly hopeless situations? No wonder when he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, Jesus reproaches the disciples’ lack of faith in him.  

The Holy Father draws the parallel between this situation in St. Mark’s Gospel and the sudden, tempestuous storm that threatens the world with the coronavirus pandemic. He says: 

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity. In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters. 

The “antibodies” that Pope Francis speaks about combat the spiritual maladies that confront us in this time of worldwide crisis. Just as we struggle to develop immune systems, vaccines and drugs that can cure the physical illnesses we are threatened by, we must also achieve a robust spiritual health and vitality that is sufficient to prevent anxiety and despair from overwhelming us.

The cure for what ails us spiritually is trust in the Lord’s healing power. We dare not doubt that he cares for us, lest we give up all hope. “Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith,” the Holy Father says. “Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you.”

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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