Fr Kevin Hegarty
One of the iconic photographs of 2020 is of Pope Francis presiding at a prayer service in an empty St Peter’s Square on March 27 as the Covid pandemic raged throughout Europe. Usually thronged with ardent believers and curious tourists, it was eerily empty and enveloped in a dystopian gloom. It telescoped the catastrophe that had suddenly engulfed us.
Now the Pope has published a book, ‘Let Us Dream - The Path to a Better Future’, in which he offers his reflections on the pandemic that has starkly revealed our vulnerability.
The book is a collaboration with his English biographer, Austin Ivereigh. In May, Ivereigh asked Francis to consider a publication that would offer ‘spiritual guidance, for this time of crisis’. From June to September they corresponded by telephone and email. ‘Let Us Dream’ is a distillation of their communication.
In this short but wide-ranging book the Pope touches on many of the topics that have made recent news headlines; the rise of the Me-too Movement; the killing of George Floyd; clerical sexual abuse; the toppling of statues of supporters of slavery.
He praises female political leaders who have been more adept that their male counterparts in dealing with the Covid crisis. He states his support for a universal basic income. He strongly criticises the neoliberal economy as it favours profit rather that the alleviation of poverty. He is scathing about the arms race:
“Just look at the figures, what a nation spends on weapons, and your blood runs cold. Then compare these figures with UNICEF’s statistics on how many children lack schooling and go to bed hungry and you realise who pays the price for arms spending’.
According to Francis the Covid pandemic can be a ‘threshold’ experience, dividing one epoch from another. He writes that “it is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of’.
The crisis has revealed to us ‘the myth of self-sufficiency’. It has shown our mutual dependency and shared vulnerability. He pays tribute to front-line workers who “are the saints next door, who have awoken something important in our hearts . . . the antibodies to the virus of indifference. They remind us that our lives are a gift and we grow by giving ourselves, not preserving our selves but losing ourselves in service. What a sign of contradiction to the individualism and self-obsession and lack of solidarity that so dominate our wealthier societies.”
Pope Francis hopes that recognition of our vulnerability in the face of this virus might lead to a richer sense of fraternity and be the springboard for a politics of the common good. He hopes it might instil in us a stronger empathy for those who are marginalised, forgotten and severely maltreated. He mentions in particular the plight of the Rohingya and Uighur Muslims, the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ever-present ‘pandemics of hunger and violence and climate change’. He asserts that ‘we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain’.
In the Bible and his own personal life he discerns events that led to seminal change. St Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus transformed him from a formidable preacher of the ‘good news’. In the ‘Old Testament’ King David found true wisdom, not amidst the splendour of royalty, but when he was stoned, cursed and betrayed as he left Jerusalem.
He believes that he was changed himself by a humiliating experience. In his leadership of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1980s, he was arrogant and dictatorial. When his term of office ended he was exiled to a menial position in Cordoba. He had ample opportunity to reflect on his failure in leadership. Though he found the experience difficult he values it now:
“It was a kind of self isolating, as so many of us have done lately and it did me good. Sometimes an uprooting can be a healing or radical makeover.” The seeds of his dialogical papacy were sown in Cordoba.
The book ends with a clarion call to change the way we live: “Let us dare to dream. God asks us to create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis. We need to slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth.”