WASHINGTON (CNS) -- For those who want to hear it, Pope Francis has a clear message for Catholics and anyone else who wants to listen during the coronavirus pandemic: Don't be afraid of the moment and don't waste this moment of conversion.
That's what three panelists shared during a May 5 online conversation sponsored by Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University during "The Papacy Confronts Coronavirus: A Conversation with Austen Ivereigh."
Ivereigh, an English author who writes about the Catholic Church and has written about Pope Francis, was joined by American author and Berkley Center senior fellow Paul Elie and Kim Daniels, associate director of Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, who also is a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.
The three distilled the pope's constant messages during the coronavirus pandemic, which place emphasis on groups and issues important all along the trajectory of his papacy: a focus on the poor, on the environment and the individual's response and responsibility during the crisis.
"We are paralyzed... at the moment, but around us, inaction in itself has potential to change us," said Ivereigh, who recently published an interview with the pontiff about the pandemic. "This is a time to reconnect with nature. Our problem has been that we've used and abused nature rather than contemplate it. This is a time to reconnect with what matters, with family, and to remember how we got here."
But the pope also has delivered a powerful spiritual message: "God has been with us all along, but we've ignored him" and we've ignored people, particularly the poor, said Ivereigh.
"It's a time of examination of conscience, and of change, and reform, and if we're able to do that ... that is what will change the future, that is what will change us," he said. "He is clearly glimpsing something very, very important that he is trying to communicate to us and there's a sense of urgency and a sense of possibility and he's saying this is a time of conversion. Don't waste it. Don't turn this into an anecdote. Don't let this become 'oh, yeah, the coronavirus, let me tell you my favorite stories from lockdown.'"
Much of the panel's conversation focused on the imagery and messaging of Pope Francis facing an almost empty St. Peter's Square March 27 when he delivered an extraordinary "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing, which a pope typically gives at Christmas and Easter and at his first public appearance after being elected pontiff.
Elie, an author and editor, said watching the solitary figure of the pope, practically alone during a rainy night, provided the imagery of what many face and feel during the pandemic and yet one that's universal: "We're all on the same boat," being rocked about by external events brought about by the coronavirus and "we together need to trust in the Lord."
Daniels said it was powerful to see the pope take the lead "as a moral and spiritual leader in the world."
"It's the real drama of the church, Pope Francis alone in the square with the rain coming down and the darkness," she recalled. "And him praying there for the world and bringing out icons for the Church that mean so much to us, making sure that we are praying together ... even though we're in this virtual world where we can't all be there with him."
The pope also has emphasized the imagery of the biblical account of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus and what others can learn from that account, "They know how to be with others, how to just let things be, and accompany others, and not be paralyzed by fear," she said.
"I think that's the spiritual message throughout," Daniels added. "Pope Francis has been focusing on how do we learn to love God, love our neighbor and accompany others in this moment in our particular place."
Ivereigh said when the pope speaks of this time as an opportunity to look after ourselves, it means to take care of what truly matters: the human person before us, the frail, the vulnerable, relationships.
"Those are the things that need nurturing at this time and if we can do that, than better times will come," he said.
Daniels said the pope was recasting, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, themes that have been common throughout his papacy, particularly the grace of conversion.
"We get there through accompaniment of those who are around us, building community in a different way than we have now because we can't be physically together," she said.
We do that by remembering in prayer and in other ways, the people the pope called the "saints next door," she said.
"Those who are serving as heroes at this time, from teachers to nurses and doctors and others but most of all bringing the poor front and center, and holding that church of the poor, which is a constant theme of his pontificate, making sure they stay with us in our prayer in our service, our approach and our response to this pandemic," she said. "That's what I see through his responses from the beginning."
Ivereigh said that with the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing, the pope played a role similar to what the biblical Moses did for his people. "He's at this time leading God's people through this dark time. His task as leader is to help to discern," to help the people of God see the horizon, to "give us courage to carry on and to warn us about the obstacles and the temptations on the way, but ... to say to us: This is a time of change and of transformation of conversion."
But we have to be able to trust God throughout what may come, a world of economic hardship that awaits after the pandemic is over, Ivereigh said.
"This is what Francis is saying to us, and the paradox to this is, we pray for an end to this but, on the other hand, we also have to trust that it has a purpose and that we need to engage with that purpose for it to bear fruit," he said.
It's not an unfamiliar message from previous pontiffs, but this one is using it in the light of the pandemic and in what may come after it, Daniels said.
The pope is saying that we may be afraid, but how can we trust in the Lord? How can we find him in the direction that we're being pointed toward but one that makes us afraid? And how can we help the vulnerable during this time, Daniels added.
"How can we trust in the Gospel? That's what he's called us to do: to accompany, to be with others and to serve the least of these ... and to not give in to our fears."
Ivereigh said one of the strongest lines of the pope's homily on that rainy night was when he said that, "we carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick."
"In other words, we separated ourselves ... and now we've discovered that we're vulnerable. We all risk sickness and death but these separations that we created are no longer valid," he said. "Now we (the church) are plunged into the sea with everybody else."
Pope Francis has called on us to "take the roots of our traditions and head for the mountains," Daniels said, meaning that believers need to arm themselves with Catholic tradition, with the Gospel, with Catholic social teaching and focus on solidarity with the poor and vulnerable and that's "where he is rooting this process of conversion for all of us ... to reimagine what our engagement with the poor is, as a community, our parishes, wherever we're living, wherever we are in society."
With the fallout that might follow, the Church will need to go into action as the field hospital the pope often has talked about, Daniels said, and one that we can already see, "whether it be in Corona (in the borough of) Queens, outside Catholic Charities with that line that is a mile long, but also in places like at the border," she said. "With bishops, with local leaders with Catholic ministries ... that to me is an example of the field hospital."
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