On the evening of March 27 last year, a Friday in Lent, while the Covid-19 pandemic was raging in Italy and across the world, Pope Francis made one of the most dramatic gestures of a dramatic year.
It was evening under lockdown; the vast cobbled square in front of St Peter’s Basilica was empty, lit by the fires of a few braziers. Alone, the Pope walked through the dark and drizzle to a lectern where he gave a blessing, Urbi et Orbi, to the city and to the world. It was an extraordinarily solemn moment.
In an accompanying discourse, he compared the pandemic to a scene in the Gospels, the storm on the sea of Galilee. “The tempest,” he said, “lays bare all our pre-packaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls.” Covid-19 was a moment of conversion in which nation after nation suddenly grasped what was essential: the fragility of our lives, solidarity, and self-sacrificing service .
No other world leader came close to expressing the universal anguish in that dark night of the soul. Trump, Johnson, Merkel or Xi managed more or less to keep their economies on track. About the existential crisis they had nothing to say. On that dreary night, Pope Francis had become, as English journalist Austen Ivereigh puts it in Let Us Dream, the Pope’s little book about Covid, “the world’s spiritual director”.
Not long afterwards, Ivereigh sat down with the Pope for an interview which resulted in this book, a kind of spiritual roadmap to a post-Covid future.
Life had left Jorge Bergoglio well-prepared for the pain and fear of coronavirus, he muses in a touching aside. At 21, he was close to death after a lung infection. Like Covid patients he fought to breathe. “I learned something from that experience, which is the importance of avoiding cheap consolations. People came in to tell me I was going to be fine, how with all that pain I’d never have to suffer again – really dumb things, empty words.” It was a visiting nun who taught him the meaning of his suffering. “You’re imitating Jesus,” she told him. He never forgot it.
And lockdown, too. He spent time in Germany, lonely, homesick and disoriented. And later, he was “exiled” to a remote city in Argentina where he barely left the house for two years. (He read all 37 volumes of Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes. “It was as if the Lord was preparing me with a vaccine,” he comments ironically. “Once you know that papal history, there’s not much that goes on in the Vatican curia and the Church today that can shock you.”)
Other than this brief glimpse of his personal struggles, there is very little personal in Let Us Dream. Instead, he returns to themes he has been hammering year after year – which became incredibly pertinent in 2020. Of these, a handful speak to the whole world.
First, individualism. In his eyes, it is almost obscene to be obsessed with entertainment and consumerism when so many people have sacrificed their lives to care for sick. “They are the antibodies to the virus of indifference,” he writes. “What a sign of contradiction to the individualism and self-obsession and lack of solidarity that so dominate our wealthier societies! Could these caregivers, sadly gone from us now, be showing us the way we must now rebuild?”
The Pope expresses his hope that the crisis will bring all of us back to reality – to caring for the flesh-and-blood people who surround us – the elderly, the poor, the marginalized. During the horrors of mounting deaths in nursing homes and overcrowded hospitals, it suddenly became obvious how many people had been abandoned by a “throwaway culture”.
Second, fundamentalism. This is a key word for Pope Francis but he does not use it as an epithet of scorn for people with a simple faith. He describes it as a failure to face up to the reality of a crisis; an attempt to construct an ideological barricade against new insights. “Whoever takes refuge in fundamentalism is afraid of setting out on the road to truth. He already ‘has’ the truth, and deploys it as a defense, so that any questioning of it is interpreted as an aggression against his person.”
We live in an era of change, and we have to be prepared to abandon certainties which we once held dear. No doubt someone will tag the Pope as a post-modernist or relativist. But this would be a mistake. He is calling for a spiritual conversion, not some sort of doctrinal capitulation.
Unhappily, he has a lot of experience with rigidity and factionalism within the Catholic Church. “These people end up trading doctrine for ideology, and their suspicions and suppositions lead them ultimately into conspiracy theories, viewing everything through a distorted lens.”
Third, polarization. Media pundits constantly lament the unstoppable slide into irreconcilable ideological factions. For the Pope this is fundamentally a spiritual problem and the Covid crisis presents an opportunity for a new kind of politics. “It is more like an act of charity, in which we search for solutions together for the benefit of all. For this mission, we need the humility to dispense with what we come to see as wrong, and the courage to take on board points of view other than our own that contain elements of truth.”
At the height of the pandemic, when hospitals in China, Europe, and American were overflowing with dying patients, there were moments of light when we all saw with piercing clarity that “we’re all in this together”. Don’t ever forget those epiphanies, the Pope urges his readers in this challenging book.
“Fraternity is today our new frontier.”