ROME — Pope Francis said Tuesday that priests should have the courage to go out among the victims of coronavirus to attend to their physical and spiritual needs.
“We pray to the Lord for our priests, so that they may have the courage to go out to the sick, bringing the strength of the Word of God and the Eucharist, and to accompany health workers and volunteers in this work that they are doing,” the pontiff said during his homily at Mass in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence in the Vatican.
The pope also offered prayers for the sick themselves, as well as for health workers and all those affected by the coronavirus epidemic.
The Mass was broadcast live in an effort to reach out to the Italian faithful, many of whom are homebound. The Italian government has asked that people stay in their houses unless they have a serious reason to leave them.
In an unprecedented move, the Catholic Church in Italy has cancelled all Masses until April 3, and Saint Peter’s Basilica itself has been closed as well. Christians are presently marking the season of Lent, a forty-day period in preparation for Holy Week and Easter when many Catholics attend church more often than usual.
Some observers have complained of the reaction of the Catholic Church to the coronavirus outbreak, drawing comparisons to the way the Church handled the far more serious pestilences in ages past.
“Once, during epidemics the Church organized novenas and processions to invoke divine protection, today the churches are closed. We do not go to Mass, so we resign ourselves to isolation,” wrote Italian historian Franco Cardini last week in the Italian daily La Stampa.
“We have severed the roots that kept us in touch with the dimension of transcendence,” the historian continued. “The true great epidemic of our day is our savage and desperate fear. During the plague of 1630 it was known that death is not the end of everything.”
In a similar vein, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argued that the Church’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been “underwhelming” while adding that “the clergy are failing the faithful amid this crisis.”
“The coronavirus is less harmful than the black plague, which shows with even more clarity how much the church’s leadership role has changed,” wrote Alessandra Bocchi, noting that in ages past men of the church were “willing to die to keep the presence of Jesus Christ in the lives of believers.”
Pope Francis’s call for more courage from the clergy to attend to the needs of the faithful will undoubtedly be seen as a positive step by those who think the Church’s response to the crisis thus far has been unconvincing.