A great deal can go wrong when one preaches at a time like this. Judging by my social media pages, there is a lot of unfortunate theology emerging from the pandemic, as preachers and theologians try to make sense of all this. Some of them speak of God’s judgment, and conceive of God as the author of our current sorrows. Some are overly sentimental—thanking God for the silver lining in all the clouds. Many are foxhole prayers, bargaining with God for our sparing. A notorious few confuse courage with defiance. In the midst of this confusion, there walked an elderly man alone into the most public of squares in one of the most vulnerable places of the world. Francis veered us away from guilt and sentimentality and bargaining and bravado, and toward the very theological virtue that we as a society lack–and which we most desperately need at this time–faith.
It is very easy to assess the theological virtue of faith in a merely pious or moralizing way. As though Jesus in the Gospel were chastising his disciples–on the boat or today in this pandemic–for their lack of confidence in his supernatural powers to quell this terrifying storm. But Francis leads steers us from a pious to a political understanding of our absence of faith: faithlessness is not our disbelief; it is not our disavowal of religion. It is instead a solipsism that characterizes our time and turns our neighbor into a stranger or even an enemy. Thus he relates our lack of faith to a kind of hubris of the wealthy and secure, an illusion of mastery and control and an indifference to the suffering that has been in place long before Coronavirus, and which the virus is laying wretchedly bare. Our love of profit, our self-absorption, our disregard for the poor and the planet–this is what it means to have no faith:
‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’
To this faithlessness, Francis offers not judgment but opportunity—this crisis represents an occasion for our society to turn away from our preoccupation with mere self-preservation to a life lived for others. Our hope rests in our capacity for judgment, our own capacity to transform our common life to one that exists for the sake of those who are most vulnerable:
‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!” “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives.
The passage that Pope Francis selected was a perfect one. At first glance, a boat can seem like a secure island of refuge—but of course, as recent news stories have shown, they are also particularly dangerous places in times like these. One thinks of the desperate cruise ships that circle around the shores terrified that each person will succumb to the virus. One thinks also of the sinking hopes of boatloads of migrants for whom there is no possibility of reaching a welcoming shore at this time. And of course, the boat is also the church, which is in no way immune from the dangers of this disease. At this particular moment, the church is not a haven from the storm, but is that which returns us to the world of suffering which this disease is displaying in terrible relief. Because of COVID-19, those of us who live in relative security, health, and prosperity are learning what life looks like for most of the inhabitants of this planet. Because of COVID-19, the illusion of distance between church and world, rich and the poor, the healthy and the ill, is disappearing. We are all–as the saying goes–in the same boat.
And so Francis spoke to the world from the city “that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith” about Peter’s fear and lack of faith. In humble gestures and words, he spoke, not through infallible pronouncements, not of miraculous and sudden cure, but of the fragile opportunity offered long ago and offered most urgently to us today—to choose love over fear, faith over faithlessness, people and planet over profit. In short, Francis called us to revolution by faith.