Pope Francis – confronting a deserted square – has given his blessing to the city of Rome and the World from the steps in front of St. Peter’s cathedral. A unique event, because the urbi et orbi is usually reserved for a few specific occasions: at Christmas and Easter and just after the election of a new pope.
But this is not an ordinary year. The coronavirus caused all celebrations to be cancelled. The churches in Italy remain open, but you cannot attend mass, confess or go to communion. Also all Holy Week celebrations, from Palm Easter to Easter Sunday High Mass, must take place without the presence of believers and those interested.
This also applies to St. Peter, where the Pope will lead the celebrations with only a few employees. The Roman Catholic Church must also adhere to the rules of the Italian lockdown and keep distance. Even though Pope Francis tries to make that distance as small as possible.
When the Pope created the Ministry of Communications in 2015, he could never have imagined how essential this part of the Curia would become for contact with believers and non-believers. Until then, the various expressions of the Vatican had operated somewhat independently. From the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano to Radio Vaticana and Vatican television: these were all islands.
The communications department has now become a streamlined media machine. With a multilingual website, a Vatican YouTube channel, Twitter accounts in nine languages and much more. For example, every morning the mass that Francis celebrates in the chapel of his house Casa Santa Marta is broadcast via a live stream. At the same time, mass can now also be seen on the first channel of the Italian public broadcaster RAI.
After his pilgrimage on March 15 through the empty streets of Rome, Francis himself no longer leaves the Vatican. So far, five cases of infection with the virus have been discovered in Vatican City. The day before yesterday with a priest who lives in the guesthouse Casa Santa Marta like the pope.
According to the Italian media, Francis has been tested for the virus and found negative. He is shielded as much as possible and eats alone. At the Vatican offices that are still open, the news of the infestations has caused great unrest. Many workers have to take public transport to get to the offices. In addition, many clergy who work there live together in residential communities. There are enough risks, but it is impossible to completely stop running the World Church.
Pope Francis gave the blessing after an hour of prayer and meditation. For many Roman Catholics, urbi et orbi gives the opportunity to come to terms with God. A moment of penance and forgiveness that many believers need in this time of illness and uncertainty.