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Papal Preaching and the Pandemic

This post continues a series of essays on preaching from the perspective of lay people. Previous entries may be found here.

By Neil Dhingra

Perhaps the most haunting photographs from this “Time of the Virus” have been of familiar places — Times Square, Connaught Place in New Delhi, the Las Vegas strip — emptied of their usual human commotion. Nature seemed to have returned in the form of swans in the canals of Venice and wild boars in the empty streets of Barcelona. The historian Anthony Vidler has described our fascination with photographs of deserted places as “the architectural uncanny”: We feel more “‘dread’ than terror,” a “sense of lurking unease,” as we glimpse the once-familiar world now become strangely fragile and in which we no longer seem to be needed. If figures appear, they are forsaken and ominous.

In very different images, on Sunday, March 15, Pope Francis, who had delivered a blessing to an empty St. Peter’s Square, walked through the streets of Rome. He went first to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then proceeded through the usually busy, now deserted Via del Corso to pray at the church of San Marcello, before a crucifix said to have once protected Rome from the “Great Plague.” The Pope, nearly alone on the empty streets, was a striking figure — his white-clad image would be in the newspapers — but his lonely intensity did not suggest our forsakenness. Instead, he was a pilgrim in this strange new world. As America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell recognized, this was a “dramatic expression of faith in the midst of crisis,” of a bishop “going out … trying to be close to the people.”

On March 27, the Pope offered an Urbi et Orbi blessing from a deserted St. Peter’s Square, dark, rainy, and silent save for an ambulance’s siren. “Francis, Alone” as one headline said. The Pope acknowledged the haunting desolation—“Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets, and our cities,” much like the storm frightening the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, and the question it raised: whether anyone, including God, still cares for us in the sickened world. Francis, devoid of all the usual signs of papal success, recognized that we could not turn to “false and superfluous certainties.” But the Pope, now merely “an old man in white, made slow by a painful hip, walk[ing] out into an eerie emptiness,” was neither forsaken nor ominous, He could still find God in the hidden presence of the Holy Spirit in the selfless giving of all those—doctors, cleaners, religious—“who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”

Preaching in the midst of a deadly pandemic may mean reframing images that otherwise signal our loss and estrangement. As Esau McCaulley has written, now, amidst contagion, we “show our solidarity by not sharing” the Eucharist; by refusing to meet and endanger others, “the absence of the church will be a great testimony to the presence of God in our care for our neighbors” (my emphases). Channeling Alexander Schmemann, Nicholas Denysenko writes that the purpose of liturgy is to manifest “the love of God directed toward the world,” which may now mean that we Christians, as “liturgical beings” (perhaps “living monstrances”), surrender our physical presence at liturgies for the “life and healing” of the world.

Pope Francis has regularly shown a form of this reframing. In his recent The Rhetoric of Pope Francis, Christopher J. Oldenburg describes how Francis has used a deep awareness of iconography and incongruity to display what the pope has called the “conversion of the papacy,” for instance in a photograph in which he, dressed as pope, carried his own luggage into a plane, or another where he is with a modest white 1984 Renault hatchback whose shape and color curiously mimic the papal vestments. Memorably, when first elected pope, on Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates, including women and Muslims, and was photographed as still clearly costumed as pope yet leaning downwards into what may once have been perceived as profane space. When we look at the carnivalesque display of holy incongruity, Oldenburg says, we find ourselves drawn into the perspective of a merciful Father and to our own conversion.

Oldenburg notes that when Francis visited the United States in 2015 and spoke before Congress, he attempted to reframe American politics around four figures of transcendence. Some of his rhetoric appeals to American civil religion — “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the “mission” to “model Christian charity,” but with an introduction of incongruity. For instance, the Argentine pope repeats “we,” as if to be in comforting solidarity with Congress but also to remind them that the common good extends past national boundaries to “this great continent.” Francis’s four figures are recognizable, even predictable, but also serve as antidotes to American politics. He proposes Lincoln and speaks of “open wounds,” appealing to the familiar Second Inaugural Address, carved into the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial, but to expose the “polarization” and new forms of slavery in our world. Francis copies Martin Luther King’s familiar and much-beloved rhetoric, repeating “let us… let us… let us,” but to redirect us to those to whom we presently fail to extend the Golden Rule.

Likewise, Francis appeals to two Catholic figures who challenge the reductionism of American politics even as they are presented as the “richness of your cultural heritage.” Dorothy Day’s witness can be captured by neither ecclesial nor political partisans. Thomas Merton is “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religion,” whose opening up of “new horizons” shows political leaders to clear a “path of dialogue” in which “new opportunities open up for all.” Francis’ language of “dialogue,” “openness,” and “pragmatism” remains irenic, but the pope uses Merton and the desirability of bridge-building to assert the necessity of contemplation as an antidote. Without contemplation, we “possess space” in ideological closure in which we “crystallize processes and presume to hold them back.” Elsewhere, Francis has warned of a rationalism that “claims to possess reality,” perhaps through “absolutely dominating technology,” only to realize in what Romano Guardini called the “second form of unculture.” We fall under the control of our own systems.

For Francis, the “richness of [America’s] cultural heritage” lays in the possibility that it “continue to develop and grow” through its openness to God. Two days later, Francis visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia and, speaking from Lincoln’s Gettysburg lectern, again engaged in what Oldenburg calls “conversionary, reconstituting rhetoric.” At what he called the “birthplace of the United States,” Francis redefined “roots” as neither nationalistic purity nor immobility but the capacity for renewal based on religious freedom that continually opens us to the Other against, in Michel de Certeau’s words, “a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.” Here, in Philadelphia, the founding figures that Pope Francis praises are the Quakers.

As such, Pope Francis’ rhetoric is meant to reframe how we see others and ourselves — the once seemingly remote and inaccessible holiness of the papacy posed above the profane world, the once seemingly technologically self-sufficient and powerful United States. So, for Francis, a homily cannot merely be about sharing data but must be an eventful sharing of a self — an “enrichment which does not consist in objects, but in persons who share themselves in dialogue.” As Paul Lynch has written, Francis, drawing on the Spanish communicar, sees the sermon as “information: knowledge that forms.” The likely original Spanish version of Evangelii Gaudium claims, “El Bien siempre tiende a comunicarse” (English: “goodness always re-emerges and spreads”). Thus, the sermon, to borrow the words of the encyclical Laudatio Sí, must diffuse a “distinctive way of looking at things,” whether of figures like Thomas Merton or the Quakers or that evoked by the photographs of papal humility.

Likewise, preaching during the pandemic must help us reframe how we have seen things. Now, an empty church can be a sign of solidarity. A canceled service to prevent infections may paradoxically show that we have finally become “liturgical beings.” And a necessarily quarantined city, startlingly bereft of human life, need not fill us with only dread and unease if a pilgrim — not merely the pope, but others as well — walks its empty streets.

Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.


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