ROME (ChurchMiliant.com) - It is the nicest response to come from the successor of St. Peter in the 2,000-year history of the Church confronting plagues. It is also a unique and unparalleled pontifical exhortation to a world knocked off its axis by pandemic and pandemonia.
If only previous popes had responded to the Plague of Cyprian (250–271) or the Plague of Justinian (541–542) or the Black Death (1346–1353) with Pope Francis' gentle non-judgmentalism! Just do it. Be nice and hug one another.
Alas! The graveyard of Catholic history is strewn with stern popes wagging warning fingers at a sinful humanity, reminding us of mortality and calling for repentance.
"Every one of us, I say, must bewail his sins and repent while there is still time for lamentation," thunders Pope St. Gregory the Great, facing a plague of monumental proportions.
Gregory's grave words are far from therapeutic: "I see my entire flock being struck down by the sword of the wrath of God. The blow falls: Each victim is snatched away from us before he can bewail his sins and repent."
"Just think in what state he must appear before the Implacable Judge, having had no chance to lament his deeds!" the medieval pope solemnly warns.
If previous popes had the benefit of Google, they'd do a word search on the five most unpalatable word-pairs used by the 2,000-year-old Church during a plague: sin, evil, wrath, punishment (or chastisement) and repentance. And if previous popes had the benefit of querido Francisco, they'd know how to press the "delete" button on such pestilential prose.
They'd swiftly adapt the gospel of the Amazon Synod to the COVID-19 pandemic. Padre God wants you to hug trees and hug Madre Terra, so now go and hug humanity — maintaining, of course, the state-stipulated measurement of social distancing.
On Thursday, Pope Francis uttered some Confucius-rivalling pearls of wisdom in his latest interview with La Repubblica — the lefty rag that has replaced L'Osservatore Romano as the Vatican's mouthpiece.
This time it wasn't Francis' favorite hack, the 95-year-old atheist Eugenio Scalfari, conducting the interview. Scalfari, who is probably in self-quarantine to survive the current apocalypse, sent Paolo Rodari, a junior newshound, to interview the pontiff.
The interview screamed out a headline with Pope Francis offering the coronavirus-stricken world Asterix's magic potion: "Don't waste these difficult days. While at home, re-discover the importance of hugging kids and relatives."
Francis' apostolic exhortation to niceness has the faintest aroma of the parable of the 10 virgins and John the Baptist and Jesus' messages on the imminent breaking-in of the kingdom of God: "Repent and believe in the gospel. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Or, as St. Paul punchily puts it: Wachet auf ... Wake up ... "the night is far gone; the day is at hand. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."
But the Holy Father is careful to sanitize Jesus' gospel of the astringent vocabulary of sin, repentance, judgment, mortality and eternity spent in Heaven or Hell.
"During these difficult days we can find small, concrete gestures expressing closeness and concreteness towards the people closest to us, a caress for our grandparents, a kiss for our children, for the people we love. These are important, decisive gestures. If we live these days like this, they won't be wasted," the Vicar of Christ sweetly mumbles — like Jesus' boy scout!
Pope Francis' Bull of Bonhomie is preceded by an Edict of Chumminess issued by the Panjandrum of Niceness, Anglican Abp. of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Welby chirpily delivers a "health and safety" decalogue in Anglican chant ("this is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands"): "Why not say the Lord's Prayer — 'Our Father who art in Heaven ….' — when you wash your hands? It takes more than the recommended 20 seconds."
Jesus Christ features at the tail-end of his circumlocutionary exhortation, but strictly in his post-modern avatar as non-judgmental therapist.
"Where someone dies, remember that, as the foundation of our faith for over 2,000 years, we have believed that God shared the pains and fears of our lives in Jesus Christ, that He faced death, but overcame it. And He is with the bereaved," the archbishop pontificates — surgically amputating any mention of beating one's breast and weeping and gnashing of teeth, now or in the afterlife.
All this is jolly nice. Sociologists have put a label on the new religion. They are calling it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its patron saint is Mary Poppins. Everything about this religion is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, outlines the creed of this religion:
1) There is a God who created the world and watches over us. 2) God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when He is needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to Heaven when they die.
"This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign Divine, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering," but "centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems and getting along amiably with other people," writes Smith.
This is not a religion of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament where God intervenes in history and judges people and nations by pouring out the vials of His wrath upon the earth (Revelation 16:1).
On the third Sunday of Lent, Pope Francis replicated Pope Gregory the Great's procession praying at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and walking alone to St. Marcello church to pray before a crucifix that was used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522.
Pope Francis has also asked people who cannot get to confession to go to God directly, be specific about their sins, request pardon and experience God's loving forgiveness. "An act of contrition done well, and our souls will become white like the snow," the pope said Friday during his livestreamed morning Mass.
Make an act of contrition, the pope said and promise God, "'I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.' And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God," the Holy Father added. But these calls are few and far between and addressed to only the people of God at a time when Church leaders should be calling the world to repentance and faith in Christ.
"I asked the Lord to stop the epidemic: Lord, stop it with your hand. That's what I prayed for," the pontiff tells La Repubblica. Cool, eh? A quickie prayer so unlike the biblical figures and Catholic saints who agonized for days, if not years, pleading with God to withdraw his hand of wrath and calling Israel and the nations to repentance.
Any chance of getting the bishops and clergy to offer votive Masses to implore God's mercy to end the epidemic, Holy Father? Or how about that special Mass to be said for times of pestilence, where we are reminded that God "does not seek the death of the sinner, but penance" and where the priest implores God to remove the "whip of thy anger" (iracundiae tuae flagella) from us?
Nah! Why? Because "even those who have not met God, those who do not have the gift of faith, can find their way through this [the coronavirus crisis], in the good things they believe in: They can find strength in love for their children, for their family, for their brothers and sisters," Francis sweetly whispers a la the Dalai Lama.
We've always wanted "a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." Hurray! Now at last, we've got it. So carry on hugging if you want to get to Heaven.