Why does the picture of a frail old man walking in the rain speak to us so profoundly at a moment like this? Of course, it matters that the man is the leader of the world’s biggest religion and he’s crossing arguably the most monumental of squares on the planet. But the powerful scene does not hold significance merely to the religiously inclined.
Pope’s Francis’ solitary steps across Piazza San Pietro on Friday, as he led the faithful into a special rite that imparted a universal blessing, became an instant icon of the pandemic. The visuals carried almost cinematic effects as the pontiff, enrobed in white, walked soberly and in apparent pain towards the steps of St Peter’s Basilica while the Vatican skies poured down all around him.
The 83-year-old Jesuit falls right within the category of people most vulnerable to the Covid-19 and watching him standing alone, unprotected, in the deserted square makes for a deeply moving sight. Those few seconds encapsulate the condition of the world right now: a feeling of abandonment, anguish, helplessness.
Psychological thanatologist David Kessler, a foremost US expert in healing and loss, defines the current global mental climate as an unprecedented case of collective anticipatory grief. Humanity is uncomfortably united in the expectation of a looming catastrophe, a state of paralysis before an onrushing deluge.
Coronavirus has now dominated the news cycle, both on mainstream and alternative media, like few other events before. Not even the banking crisis, 9/11, the Cold War or indeed the World Wars have had such crushing impact on every country and at the same time. The Covid-19 emergency is all there is right now because, as a matter of fact, everything else has come to a halt: from the economy to healthcare and from personal relationships and global events, life has been put on indefinite hold.
But as we move day-by-day deeper into a crisis, the unassuming image of an aging man braving the elements with nothing except his faith, fills us with confidence in the human spirit whether we identify as religious, spiritual or neither. It shows us that hope is not only the last to die, but also the first to rebuild.