ROME – On the March day that Italy recorded its single biggest jump in coronavirus fatalities, Pope Francis emerged from lockdown to offer an extraordinary prayer and plea to his flock to reassess their priorities, arguing the virus had proved they needed one another.
Francis’ words from the rain-slicked promenade of St. Peter’s Basilica encapsulated the core messages he has emphasized during his seven-year pontificate: solidarity, social justice and care for the most vulnerable.
But the dramatic moment also underscored how isolated the pope had become during the COVID-19 emergency and a sustained season of opposition from his conservative critics: He was utterly alone before an invisible enemy, preaching to a hauntingly empty piazza.
During the virus crisis, Francis has become a 21st century “prisoner of the Vatican," as one of his predecessors was once known, robbed of the crowds, foreign travel and visits to the peripheries that so defined and popularized his papacy. He will resume physical contact with his flock this week with revived Wednesday general audiences, but the meetings will be held in an internal Vatican courtyard before a limited crowd rather than the vast St. Peter's Square.
After weeks during which Italy brought the virus under control, the country's caseload is rebounding — now adding more than 1,000 new infections a day — so there’s no telling when or how more ambitious public gatherings and travel might return.
What does all this mean for a 83-year-old globe-trotting pope and his ministry to the 1.2-billion-member Catholic Church?
Alberto Melloni, a church historian usually sympathetic to Francis, declared that the pandemic marked the beginning of the end of Francis’ pontificate. In a recent essay, he asserted that tensions that had percolated throughout the papacy came to the surface during the lockdown, and won’t fade even after COVID-19 is tamed.
“In every papacy there’s a historic point after which the final phase begins, which can last years,” Melloni wrote. For Francis, “this point was the pandemic and his solitude before the virus.”