The phrase Urbi et Orbi is one that usually brings me a sense of warmth and peace. Each Christmas and Easter the pope, standing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, addresses a huge crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, and delivers his message of joy to the people of Rome ( the “Urbi” or “City”) and the World (“Orbi” or “Globe”). He does this in his dual role as both Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Universal Church.
In fact, this phrase is so associated with the successor of St. Peter that it is inscribed in the pope’s “home” church – the Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran, also called the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, or, more commonly (and simply) St. John Lateran. Here sits the Cathedra (or chair) of the Bishop of Rome, the piece of furniture that defines a cathedral. This archcathedral (designated as such because it is the highest ranking of the four major basilicas of Rome) is the oldest church in Rome and the oldest basilica in the Western Church.
On Friday of last week Pope Francis again delivered an Urbi et Orbi message, but he did so in circumstances far different from the norm. The photos of the pope standing in front of St. Peter’s Basilica under a canopy in the pouring rain show a scene that has become all too familiar. He is standing alone on the stage, no prelates or other dignitaries flank the pontiff. He is, even more strikingly, standing alone in St. Peter’s Square: a solitary figure, dressed in white speaking into a microphone, addressing his flock and all people of good will throughout the world.
He delivered a message neither of the joyous birth of the Incarnate Word nor of the glorious Resurrection of the Son of God. And yet he delivered a message of light amid darkness, of hope amid despair, of solidarity amid isolation, to a city and a world in desperate need not only of good news, but, more importantly, of the Good News.
I never tire of quoting theologian Dr. Michael Baxter of Regis University, who said that one of the great things about the Catholic Church is Her ability to show us what to do when we want to do something but are at a loss as to what that something is. The most obvious example of this is the Catholic rituals surrounding death, when the grieving loved ones feel as if they are adrift on a stormy sea. The prayers at the funeral home, the funeral Mass itself, the prayers at the graveside all contain rituals of great meaning and solace for those left behind. At the gathering after the burial there is, for Catholics, a sense that the Church has done Her job in calming the storm and delivering them to a safe port where they can now eat and drink and laugh and begin to get back to their normal way of life.
And so it is with Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi message, focusing as it does on the miracle of the calming of the storm at sea that takes place near the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel. Using the phrase “when evening had come,” the opening words of the miracle story, he links that story to all those who live in Rome and the world: “For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void.” The image of the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, standing in the light and surrounded by the darkness of a deafening silence and a distressing void, sends out a message to Rome and the world that the Church still knows what to do when we are adrift on a stormy sea.
If you have not read the Holy Father’s message I urge you to do so. If you have, I suggest that you read it again, especially when you are feeling like the Apostles – lost at sea and in danger of drowning. Heed the message of the miracle and the words of the Lord and of Pope Francis, and act upon them: bring solidarity to the isolated, hope to the desperate, and light to those in darkness. That is what we need to do when we don’t know what to do.