VATICAN CITY – The coronavirus pandemic has forced Pope Francis, who has in the past skipped all protocol to stop the popemobile to give the faithful hugs, to become a digital pope.
Just a few months ago, the pontiff would bypass security measures to sip on offerings of mate tea and engage with the hundreds of thousands of people that flock to him.
These days, the Argentine pope cuts a lonely figure as he leans out of the window of the pontifical palace to give a blessing to a completely deserted St. Peter’s square.
However, hundreds of thousands of people follow the Sunday Angelus online.
Even during World War II, on July 19, 1943, after the US bombing of Rome, Pope Pius XII went to the San Lorenzo neighborhood, where over 4,000 bombs fell killing 3,000 people and wounding more than 11,000, to hug people.
He left the Vatican in his car, reached the affected area and was engulfed by thousands of people.
Tale has it he returned with his robes stained with blood.
With all trips cancelled since Italy’s government implemented a lockdown, Francis’ only trip beyond the Vatican was on March 15 in an empty Rome as he walked along the deserted Via del Corso to visit an important pilgrimage site.
He went to the Church of San Marcello to pray before a wooden crucifix that was left intact in a 1519 fire and that, three years later, was carried out in a procession through the neighborhoods of the city to invoke the end of the plague that was ravaging it. The venerated crucifix is considered “miraculous.”
Previously, the pope had visited the ancient icon of Maria Salus Populi Romani at the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray before the Byzantine virgin.
The deadly virus does not allow the pontiff, 83, to approach the faithful, but nevertheless he tries to keep close to the Catholic community through technology.
Many people have discovered that the 7:00 am mass the pope celebrates at his residence, Casa Santa Marta, and that was reserved for a small few is now broadcast live on the Vatican television channel and on the Internet.
A consolation for many Catholics who can no longer go to mass.
Francis is dedicating these daily masses and prayers to the people who are suffering the most in the global pandemic.
The general audiences that gathered 25,000 people from different countries every Wednesday, and in which the pope offered his catechesis, greetings in different languages and a specific message relevant to current affairs, also continue.
There is no longer an opportunity to greet the pope, for children to receive a kiss or to offer him tea. The audiences are held in the library room of the papal palace, where the heads of state and government are received and are also broadcast live.
It is a cold moment, without applause, without music bands, without the performances of artists, but the pope continues to pronounce catechesis and send his messages.
He has also cancelled all hearings with the groups that were being held either in the Pauline Chapel or in the great Paul VI classroom, and he only maintains personal meetings with the members of the Roman Curia, the permanent synod of the church.
To bring Catholics together in prayer, he called on Wednesday all the faithful of the world to pray the Our Father at noon, a gesture with which he wants to universalize prayer to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, another surreal image will be produced again when at 6:00 pm (local time) the pope goes down to St. Peter’s Square for a moment of prayer in the face of total emptiness and will give the Urbi et Orbi blessing alone.
This is expected to be a rehearsal of what Holy Week in the Vatican will be like, with Pope Francis officiating rites without the presence of the faithful and without the traditional Way of the Cross in the Colosseum.
Again, technology will help the pope reach all Catholics.