Pope Francis has written a letter to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, saying he wants “to draw near to them, to accompany, share, and confirm” their journey in providing a pastoral response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The new phase we are beginning”, he writes, “asks us for wisdom, foresight, and common commitment, so that all the efforts and sacrifices made so far will not be in vain”.
The Holy Father said he had hoped to meet with Rome’s priest at the Chrism Mass, which normally takes place each year on Holy Thursday. Due to the coronavirus emergency, however, this year’s Chrism Mass has been postponed. “Since a celebration of a diocesan character is not possible, Pope Francis explains to the diocesan clergy, “I am writing this letter to you”.
As Bishop of Rome, the Pope says he has been “encouraged” by exchanges with priests, who have shared with him their own witness, as well as their concerns and needs.
Along with the rest of Italy, Rome has been under severe restrictions because of the coronavirus crisis. Italy has been particularly hard hit by the disease, with more than 230,000 diagnosed cases, and over 33,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
In his letter, Pope Francis looks to the first apostolic community, which gathered in the Upper Room after the first Easter. Although the doors to the room were closed because the disciples were afraid, the Risen Christ appeared to them, offering them peace and sending them forth with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Close to the people
The Holy Father notes that the priests of Rome have been close to their people, experiencing with them the difficulties of the lockdown, and sharing their sorrows. They have accompanied those who have lost loved ones, health care providers, essential workers, the excluded and the vulnerable. And with them, he writes, “We have experienced our own vulnerability and helplessness”.
The novel coronavirus does not distinguish between individuals, families, social groups or nations, he writes. Instead, everyone has been affected by the disease. Our presuppositions have been challenged and new and old questions have forced themselves on our attention. These questions, says Pope Francis, cannot be answered simply by reopening and going back to the way things were. Instead, we are called “to promote the new life that the Risen Lord wants to give us”. Over against temptations, we must encourage the hope that can “stimulate our creativity, our ingenuity, and our ability to respond”.
A new day
Jesus “did not choose or seek an ideal situation to break into the lives of His disciples”, the Pope writes. But when He appeared to the disciples in the locked room, Jesus “was able to transform all logic and give new meaning to history and events”.
Pope Francis writes that Jesus’ presence announces “a new day”. The Pope encourages priests to not be afraid of the complex scenarios that will come about as we move beyond the first stage of the pandemic response, reminding them that Christian joy comes from the certainty that Jesus is in our midst”. Those who, like Jesus, can welcome and embrace life as it really is, who allow themselves to “weep with those who are weeping” are capable “of reaching the depths of life and being truly happy.”
Things can change
It is the duty of priests “to announce and prophesy the future”, writes Pope Francis. The Resurrection “is not only an historical event of the past”, but rather, “the announcement of the salvation of a new time that resounds and is ready to break out today”.
It is faith that allows us to establish “a new time” with evangelical creativity.
“If an intangible presence has been able to disrupt and overturn the priorities and seemingly unbreakable global agendas,” Pope Francis writes, “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 singular moment”.
He calls on priests to “once again be surprised by the Risen One”. The Resurrection of Jesus, the Pope says, “is the proclamation that things can change”. And he reminds priests, “It is up to us to take responsibility for the future and project it as brothers”.
To love and serve more
In the conclusion of his letter, Pope Francis explains, that he wanted to share the things he has thought and felt during the pandemic with his brother priests, “so that they may help us on the path of praise of the Lord and service to our brothers and sisters”.
“I hope”, he writes, “that all of us will use them ‘to love and serve more’”.