By Andrea Tornielli
In an exclusive interview with Vatican Media, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, confirms the closeness of the Church to those who are suffering during this dramatic time of the coronavirus pandemic. He calls for a spirit of “international solidarity” and says this is not the time to “shut ourselves off” from others.
How are the Pope and the Roman Curia living this crisis?
We are sharing this difficult moment with everyone. It is a dramatic moment for many. I am thinking of the sick, the elderly above all, the dying, their families. We are in the time of the Easter Vigil. The Church keeps vigil with everyone. She is close to those who suffer and are in need. We need to be freed from the imprisonment of a time lived in frustration, from the threat of sickness and death. “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn 11:43), is the cry that resounds in time, particularly now, so as to be a new time of life and spirit. Pope Francis is seeking every way possible to be close to people throughout the world. Contact with people has always been fundamental for him, and he intends to maintain this, even if in a new and unprecedented way. The daily live broadcast of the Holy Mass from Santa Marta is a concrete example. The constant prayer for the victims, their families, health care personnel, volunteers, priests, workers, families is another. All of us collaborators are trying to help him maintain contact with the Churches in all the countries of the world.
This crisis is affecting families, changing people’s lives and causing serious repercussions even on the economic system. What can it teach us?
We are experiencing a tragedy bound to have significant consequences on our lives. First of all, we are being confronted with our fragility and vulnerability. We realize that we are not creators, but poor creatures, who exist because Someone gives them life at every moment. We are not absolute masters either. All it takes is a mere nothing, a mysterious and invisible enemy, to make us suffer, to make us seriously ill, to make us die. We realize that we are small, insecure, helpless. We are also confronted with the essential, with what really matters. We are offered the possibility of rediscovering the value of family, friendship, interpersonal relationships, relationships that we normally neglect, solidarity, generosity, sharing, closeness in the concreteness of small things. We need one each other, communities and societies, to help us care for one another. Finally, I believe this is an opportune moment to return to God with all our hearts, as Pope Francis reminded us during the extraordinary moment of prayer on March 27th, and a few days earlier in the “ecumenical” Our Father, prayed together with all the world’s Christians.
How does Christian faith help us interpret what is happening?
Christian faith is God irrupting in human history. God who becomes flesh, God who comes to share everything about our existence except sin, and is willing to suffer and die to save us. We are preparing to celebrate Easter in this Lent which has been unique: Jesus rises, conquers death, gives life. Faith’s outlook in these difficult times helps us to abandon ourselves more and more to God, to knock on His door with our incessant prayer that He may shorten this time of trial. It helps us to see all the good that surrounds us, and that is witnessed by many people. It is comforting to experience the pastoral creativity, already mentioned by Pope Francis, of bishops, priests, men and women religious, and the commitment of many lay people. They are the “voice” of the Gospel. So are all those (from doctors to nurses to volunteers) who are fighting the disease. I think it is good to see how the Church, which lives immersed in the reality of her people, seeks and finds a thousand ways, using all possible means, to ensure that people are not left alone, that they can pray and receive a comforting word. It struck me that, even in the current crisis, people are finding a way to express themselves – for example through music and song – in order to be together. I would like this to happen in some way in parishes too. It would be nice if all the churches could ring their bells for one minute at the same time, for example at noon; and that this sound might be a call to pray together, even given the physical distance.
What can you tell us about the health situation of the Holy See’s employees?
As you know, at the present time there are seven positive, confirmed cases of Covid-19. At the beginning of March, there was the case of someone who underwent a medical examination in view of employment. In the past weeks, another six have been discovered. All of them have passed the critical phase and are now improving. Obviously, as in Italy and in all the countries of the world, we are daily and hourly monitoring the situation, thanks to the dedication of our doctors and nurses.
What is the Holy See doing during this time to help the Churches around the world?
Through its Dicasteries, the Holy See is committed to maintaining contact with the local Churches, trying to help, as far as possible, the populations particularly affected by the spread of the coronavirus, regardless of religious or national affiliation, as it has always done. Since the global health emergency began, the Holy Father himself wanted to express his closeness and solidarity with the Chinese population, sending a gift to the charitable organization Jinde Charities and the Diocese of Hong Kong, and later also to Iran, Italy and Spain. Various initiatives are being studied to provide concrete gestures of solidarity, and to witness charity.
Masses and other liturgies – including funerals – have been suspended. Churches, however, are still open almost everywhere. What does this mean? What do you want to say to the faithful who cannot receive the sacraments?
The suspension of celebrating the liturgy was necessary to avoid large gatherings. However, in almost every city, churches remain open. I hope those that may have been closed will reopen as soon as possible. Jesus is present there in the Eucharist; priests continue to pray and celebrate Holy Mass for the faithful who cannot participate there. It is nice to think that the doors to God’s house remain open, just as the doors of our houses remain open, even though we are strongly encouraged not to go out except for essential reasons. The family is a domestic church. We can pray and prepare ourselves for Easter by following the liturgies and prayers on television. To the many members of the faithful who suffer because they cannot receive the Sacraments, I would like to say that I share their sorrow. But I would like to recall the possibility of making a spiritual communion, for example. Moreover, Pope Francis, through the Apostolic Penitentiary, granted the gift of special indulgences to the faithful, not only to those affected by Covid-19, but also to health care providers, family members and all those who care for them in various ways, including through prayer. In a vigil like this one, there is also another aspect that must be highlighted and reinforced. This is possible for everyone: to pray with the Word of God; to read, to contemplate, to welcome the Word who is coming. With His Word, God has filled the void that frightens us in these hours. God communicated Himself in Jesus, the complete and definitive Word. We must not simply fill time, but fill ourselves with the Word.
Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges at this time. In the Covid-19 wards people are dying alone, without the comfort of relatives who are barred from entering the intensive care units. How can the Church show she is close to people?
This is one of the consequences of the epidemic that, in a certain sense, upsets me. I have read and heard dramatic and moving stories. When, unfortunately, a priest cannot be present at the bedside of a person who is dying, every baptized person can pray and bring comfort by virtue of the common priesthood received with the Sacrament of Baptism. It is beautiful and evangelical to think that at this difficult time, in some way, even the hands of doctors, nurses, health care providers, who every day comfort, heal or accompany the sick in their last moments, become the hands and words of all of us, of the Church, of the family that blesses, says good-bye, forgives and comforts. It is God’s caress that heals and gives life, even eternal life.
How will the Holy Week liturgies take place in the Vatican?
We have studied different options than the traditional ones. In fact, it will not be possible to welcome pilgrims, as has always been the case. In full respect of the regulations to avoid infection, we will try to celebrate the great Rites of the Easter Triduum in order to accompany all those who, unfortunately, will not be able to go to church.
The crisis is becoming global and is beginning to involve countries in the world’s South. How can the Church contribute to a spirit of mutual help between different nations and continents with different problems, so as not to lose the spirit of solidarity and multilateral collaboration
Unfortunately, we are facing a pandemic and the virus is spreading like wildfire. On the one hand, we see how many extraordinary efforts are being made by developed countries. Many sacrifices have been made by ordinary individuals, families and national economies, to effectively tackle the health crisis and combat the spread of the virus. On the other hand, however, I must confess that I am even more concerned about the situation in the less developed countries. There, health care facilities are not able to ensure necessary and adequate care for the population in the event of a more widespread diffusion of the Covid-19 virus. The Holy See’s vocation is to consider the entire world. It seeks not to forget those who are farthest away, those who suffer the most, those who perhaps struggle to gain the attention of the international media. This is not only a concern linked to the current pandemic emergency. How many wars, how many epidemics, how many famines scourge so many of our brothers and sisters! There is a real need to pray and to commit ourselves, all of us, so that international solidarity never fails. Despite the emergency, despite the fear, now is not the time to shut ourselves off from others. In these days, we are, unfortunately, realizing this: problems and tragedies that we usually consider far from our lives, have knocked on our doors. It is an opportunity to feel more united and to nurture the spirit of solidarity and sharing among all countries, among all peoples, among all men and women in the world. Challenges and profound changes will come about as a result of this crisis. Civil authorities need to exercise their responsibility beyond the self-centeredness of their own personal, group, and national interests. They need to provide for the common good, wisely and responsibly, according to the values of freedom and justice.