Today, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh released an exclusive interview with Pope Francis about practical and spiritual concerns relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In reading the pope’s responses (translated by Ivereigh from the Spanish recording), I was impressed again by the very personal way this pope speaks to us – openly and frankly – and how that in turn causes me to reflect more personally and more deeply on the issues he talks about.
But in all he said, there were two things that struck me most:
In response to a question (the first question) about his personal experiences during the lockdown, the pope says, “I’m thinking of my responsibilities now, and what will come afterwards.” And he makes it clear that prayer is an important part of this discernment – something I, at least, constantly need to be reminded of.
And then soon after he says, “I’m living this as a time of great uncertainty. It’s a time for inventing, for creativity.” Creativity. And he repeats that word five times during the course of this short interview. Indeed, I would say it is its main theme.
In times of crisis, whether our own personal crises or a worldwide one such as we are experiencing today, it can be hard to look beyond the here and now. It can be hard to imagine what the future may look like when a future beyond this one seems so uncertain and when the present needs all our attention and our energy.
But Pope Francis here models for us the Christian response: one which accepts the present and all its responsibilities with an open heart and one which also looks forward with a realistic but equally open heart to the future. “Don’t run away,” he tells us. “Don’t take refuge in escapism, which in this time is of no use to you.” Today is constantly turning into tomorrow. Today the darkness of the tomb, tomorrow the Resurrection. That is the Christian message, the Christian approach to life.
But tomorrow has its responsibilities and challenges, too. Should we fear them? No, even if we cannot know what they will be or how we will tackle them. Because we will face them by being rooted in God, in prayer, and in our past. Because if we are open to tomorrow’s challenges, we will also be open to its graces.
Many of us are asking ourselves: What can I do today to help? And there are many people who are directly involved in the crisis: doctors, nurses, politicians, municipal workers, grocery store and pharmacy staff. But for most of us, “what we can do” seems so very small and pitiful, especially when measured against our overvaluing as a society of productivity and busy-ness: washing our hands, staying at home, telecommuting, homeschooling, video chatting.
And yet, without denying the importance of these individual acts of love and their force also as a whole, I think Pope Francis gives us the key that many of us are missing: Look to the future. Begin to think now, begin to pray now about how you will contribute when the crisis is past.
And be creative.
Will we go back to our lives as they were before? Will we just pick up where we left off? I hope, in some sense, that we will, though with greater joy and a greater awareness for how fragile life is and how easily the structures of our daily routines might be broken. I hope we will all recognize somewhere deep within us, without any complex explanations from psychologists and sociologists, that we need the physical presence of others: our family, our friends, and even strangers. I hope Mass will be the same – in fact, I’m counting on it. But I hope I will not be the same.
Because, Pope Francis reminds us, this crisis, as with any period of trial and suffering, is “a place of metanoia
(conversion)”. But it will only be an opportunity for conversion if we make it so, if I as an individual and as a Christian choose to make it so. It is time to be creative. Conversion doesn’t happen by standing still, by stagnating. It happens by allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us, to recreate us: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
This pandemic, and the responses to it, are bringing to the fore all those things that most of us, if we’ll be honest with ourselves, probably already knew: that money is our first priority as a society, that the Earth is suffering, that the poor are suffering, that the elderly are ignored, that people of all kinds are suffering from isolation in its various forms, that we overvalue “progress” and “technology” for their own sakes and to the detriment of people and our planet.
How can we begin to change all of that? By opening our minds and our hearts, by welcoming in the Holy Spirit and allowing His creativity to transform us – to bring about a conversion in each one of us.
But we have to begin now, begin looking to the future and contemplating with Christian creativity what each of us will bring to our hurting world.
In his final question, Austen Ivereigh asks the Holy Father if he has a message for the elderly now and for young people, and the pope presents them with messages inspired by the same verse from the prophet Joel:
It shall come to pass
I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions. (Joel 3:1)
Let us dare to dream of a better world, and let us go forth, when we are able, to fulfill our mission as a prophetic people – not only with optimism, but with faith, joy, hope, and great creativity.
Austen Ivereigh's interview with Pope Francis can be read here or here.
And you can get Austen Ivereigh's perspective on the interview and how it came about here.