SINCE the outbreak of Covid-19 in Italy, 3,089 individuals were recorded as infected, with 107 dead as of March 5, 2020. While officiating the Ash Wednesday mass on Feb. 26 in the Vatican, Pope Francis kept a handkerchief in his hand and was seen sneezing a number of times. He shared his concern on the spread of the coronavirus and expressed solidarity with those infected. On the succeeding day, the Holy See Press Office issued a statement that the pontiff would be indisposed for the next few days. Fake news soon spread like wildfire that the head of the Catholic Church had Covid-19. This was countered promptly with the mainstream Italian newspaper Il Messaggerro reporting on March 3 that Pope Francis was suffering from a cold and had tested negative for coronavirus.
The season of Lent is one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith laid on the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The 1983 Code of Canon Law enumerates the obligations of Catholics that include abstinence and fasting on “Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Canon 1251) and to do “other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety” (Canon 1253).
The Pope wrote a message for Lent 2020 addressed to all the faithful, with the heading quoted from 2 Cor 5:20: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” He touched on the following points: (1) The paschal mystery as the basis of conversion; (2) the urgency of conversion; (3) God’s passionate will to dialogue with his children; and (4) a richness to be shared, not kept for oneself.
The first point reminds me of an article by a priest who observed the popularity of the song, “My Way” during funerals. He said it is an error because we should live according to God’s will. The Pope wrote: “Christian joy follows from listening to, and accepting, the Good News of the death and resurrection of Jesus... Whoever believes this message rejects the lie that our life is ours to do with as we will. Rather, life is born of the love of God our Father, from his desire to grant us life in abundance.” The second point, the Bishop of Rome advises us to pray in the “knowledge that, although unworthy, we are still loved.” In the third point, Pope Francis admonishes us about gossip or, as we call it today, fake news: “Such chatter, determined by an empty and superficial curiosity, characterizes worldliness in every age; in our own day, it can also result in the improper use of social media.” The fourth item asks us to be compassionate “towards the wounds of the crucified Christ” present in many forms today, such as abortion, war and violence, environmental disasters, unequal distribution of wealth and human trafficking.
In the midst of a world where self centeredness has become a virtue, where material wealth and fame are the measures of success and where freedom means breaking moral norms, Pope Francis’ voice seems like an echo in the wilderness. And those of us who hear it, let us heed.