The term "parochial" is frequently used in a condescending sense, but no one today can get away with thinking that to be parochial is to be isolated from reality. As I write, the Navy hospital ship "Comfort," last seen here on the Hudson River after the World Trade Center horror, is passing by our rectory windows. The convention center nearby, usually home to flower and boat shows, is being converted into a huge emergency hospital.
This is how we approach the start of the Holy Week, in which the faithful observe the most important thing that ever happened since the world was created. With powerful shock this Lent, mortifications have been imposed by circumstances beyond human control and not chosen by the exercise of free will. Now the Passion will be more powerful because the gates of the temple are closed.
The holy Apostles thought themselves bereft of the One they hoped might be the Messiah. On the Mount of Olives, three of them slept a depressed sleep, haunted by anxious confusion. Varying circumstances in every generation have given the impression of being abandoned by the One who had promised to be with us always.
Blaise Pascal wrote: "Jesus sera en agony jusqu'à la fin du monde: il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là." (Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world. We should not sleep during this entire time.) The solemnity of those words was the freight of the confidence that tethers agony to victory.
In a book I wrote years ago, I remarked that modern communications have made popes more visible than ever, but a dangerous result is the impression that their significance issues from celebrity. Last Friday, Pope Francis stood alone in the dark and rain of a totally empty St. Peter's Square and then blessed the whole world with the Blessed Sacrament. Because it was in what is now called "real time," it was a stunning evocation of the final scene in Robert Hugh Benson's dystopian novel, Lord of the World. The Antichrist would try to destroy the Church, attacking the lone figure of the pope exiled in Nazareth, as he holds the Blessed Sacrament. The future Pope Benedict XVI spoke of that book in 1992, and Pope Francis mentioned it in 2013 and 2015.
Bulwer-Lytton wrote many fine things and is mocked only because one line has become a cliché. "It was a dark and stormy night." That dark and stormy night when the pope stood alone before the Basilica of St. Peter was the harbinger of victory and not the whimper of defeat.
Now there is even concern that palm branches might be infected. No matter. This will be a great Holy Week, because "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out" (Luke 19:40).