For the first time in the last six months – the six months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe – Pope Francis held a general audience in the San Damaso courtyard of the Vatican Apostolic Palace last Wednesday.
“After so many months, we resume our encounters face to face – not screen to screen, face to face – and this is beautiful,” he said as he walked to the dais for his speech. He stopped many times to talk with the people in the crowd of 500 who stood behind barriers, while wearing face masks. He stood one to two meters away from the people, in line with the rule on social distancing, but he was evidently enjoying meeting the people.
Before the pandemic, tens of thousands of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square where the Pope held his outdoor audiences. Early in March, as the pandemic began its deadly spread around the world, with Italy and Spain the first to suffer heavily in Europe, the Pope suspended his public audiences and began to use television and on-line communications to address the people.
At Wednesday’s audience, the Pope announced a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon which suffered a deadly port blast that killed at least 190 people and continues to suffer from rising sectarian tensions. “We cannot abandon Lebanon to itself,” the Pope said as he asked nations around the world to “help without getting involved in regional tensions.”
But it was the face-to-face meeting with his audience last Wednesday that made it so special both for the Pope and for the people who were able to attend. The visitors had their temperatures checked as they entered the Vatican and wore face masks. Even the Swiss Guards in their ceremonial uniforms wore face masks.
We hope the Pope’s face-to-face meeting with his audience last Wednesday is a sign of things to come in a world ravaged by the pandemic in so many ways – in millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths, in national economies plunging to historic depths, in individual lives so severely changed by losses of livelihoods, traditional celebrations, and even attendance in church services.
In Metro Manila, the government last Tuesday allowed people to go to churches up to 10 percent of their capacity, after many months when only 10 people at a time were allowed. It was a welcome move to parishioners who have had to hear Mass while standing outside in the churchyard or in the public plaza outside the church.
We are grateful for all the modern telecommunication systems that enable us to stay in contact with others, but, as the Pope said, meeting “face to face, not just screen to screen – it’s so beautiful.” This is true for all human activities, but it’s specially true for people gathering in fellowship and in worship.