ALONG ROME’S DESERTED STREETS

– José Maria C. S. André

The image has the power of an epic film: Francis walking through the deserted streets of Rome, praying for the city and the world (see an excerpt at https://youtu.be/Wgl11MSEVys). The city remains deserted and silent, someone appears occasionally, not believing his/her eyes: the Pope walking outside the limits of the Vatican, across his city.

After leaving the Vatican on foot, the first stop was in the church of Saint Mary Major, where he always goes before every apostolic trip and where he always returns, at the end of each trip, to thank. There, on the altar of Our Lady, he placed a bouquet of flowers, as he does every time. Then, he went to the church of St Marcello, in a recess of via del Corso, right in the center of Rome, to pray before an ancient miraculous crucifix and to leave another bouquet of flowers on the altar.

It was the quiet afternoon of last Sunday, March 15th. Slightly behind, the bodyguards follow the Pope, trying to pass unnoticed. It was plain that the Pope walked with discomfort, especially when the ground was uneven or he needed to climb up or go down one step. And these distances are big, for someone who walks with difficulty. It was obvious that the Pope meditated along the way and wanted to spend time in each place to pray. The churches, closed and empty, are purposely opened for him. In each church, only the priests in charge receive the Pope. Through the streets he crosses, the shops are closed, the windows muted, only the wind whistles and the steps of a rare passerby can be heard.

Although respecting the orders of the health authorities, the Pope commented that “drastic measures are not always the best.” Because, whatever happens, we cannot lose sight of God, He must really occupy the entire space of our heart. In these strange times of seclusion, also of fear and suffering for some, the Pope asked Catholics to break with individualism, to open themselves in a new way to God and to others. Physical isolation should become an opportunity to reach more people.

In response to this call, materials for praying and following the texts of the daily Eucharist have multiplied on the internet. The website www.vaticannews.va broadcasts the daily Mass celebrated by the Pope in the chapel of Saint Martha. In some Italian cities and other countries – Pope Francis referred to this with joy – the bishops and parish priests, alone or escorted by an acolyte, also walked the deserted streets of their places, praying for everybody. Some of them, taking the Blessed Sacrament in procession, as in the Corpus Christi Feast, this time without the accompaniment of the crowd.

Referring specifically to Lombardy, where there were more infections and more deaths, the Pope recalled the Archbishop of Milan, on the cathedral terrace, alone, praying before the image of Our Lady who is at the top of the highest spire. This is, said the Pope, “being close to the people.” Francis also praised “the creativity of so many priests. I received news from Lombardy telling me about this creativity. … Fortunately, there are priests who invent a thousand ways to remain close to their people, so that they never feel abandoned. Priests with apostolic zeal.”

The leftist newspaper La Repubblica commented on Francis’ journey through the deserted streets of Rome: “it looked like a scene from Paolo Sorrentino’s last movie series and eventually it was true.”

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