The priest presses the button and starts broadcasting the mass on Facebook Live. He stands in front of the camera and starts the prayers when a virtual futuristic looking helmet lit with colored LED lights is placed on his head. He proceeds with solemn piety, unperturbed by what’s happening, but moments later a warrior’s costume appears to cover him. A few seconds later, he’s wearing shades and a hat like the Blues Brothers’, while Super Mario Bros. coins begin to rain down on the church. The priest in question is Don Paolo Longo of the Church of San Petro and San Benedetto in the Italian town of Polla. It’s March 24, and it’s the first time that he broadcasts services online. The good man has accidentally connected the animated filters. Many decades ago, when Don Paolo was ordained a priest, he was instructed in the seminary on the Third Council of Constantinople, Latin patristic theology, the hypostatic union in Jesus Christ, and other aspects of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. What no one told him back then is that he would also need to learn the Zuckerbergian Charismata.
Don Paolo is one of many thousands of priests and faithful who, in these days of pandemic and closed churches, are suddenly immersing themselves in new technologies. They dare to try everything, thinking of those martyrs that, throughout the centuries, gave their lives to evangelize in the most hostile places on the planet, and how a puny technological barricade designed in a place as corny as Silicon Valley would not be able to stop them now. Now the history of the digital crusade is being written.
They are not alone in the battle. On Friday, March 27th, when Pope Francis gave an extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square, many spectators participated in the ceremony online. In the United Kingdom, there were more than ten million spectators. In Spain it was the most-watched broadcast in March. Similar phenomena have unfolded in other parts of the world. In France, the Sunday Mass on television is pulverizing all previous records with more than one million viewers. In Germany, audiences are at an all-time high. On YouTube, hundreds of new channels from parishes and priests are being broadcast to the faithful across the internet. A Pew Research Center survey shows that more than half of American adults were praying for an end to the pandemic. It notes that those who pray often are doing so more in recent weeks—and that a quarter of those who do not profess any religion are praying to God for an end to the coronavirus.
Everything is new and surprising for priests like Don Paolo and for the faithful: from the processions inside deserted churches or the communal praying of the Rosary through Instagram Live, to the blessing with the Holy Sacrament from a helicopter, as the Archbishop of Panama did on April 5.
In Rome, the silence was overwhelming as the Pope imparted the Urbi et orbi blessing. A very sad rain sprinkled the square. The image of a lone Pope Francis overlooking St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican seemed to gather the whole church around its shepherd. His homily was resounding, and echoed on the colonnades. “For some weeks now, it seems that everything has gone dark,” said the Pope. “We find ourselves frightened and lost. . . . Embrace the Lord to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees from fear and gives hope.”
This scene reminded me of another. In 1987, John Paul II literally shouted to Chilean youth these words that now seem prophetic: “Love always wins, as Christ has won. Love has conquered. Love always wins. Even though at times, before concrete events and situations, it may seem powerless to us… Christ also seemed powerless on the cross. God always wins!”
In recent weeks there has been an interesting debate: Should churches be closed or, on the contrary, should they be more open than ever? Probably the correct answer is both. I do not believe that closing churches in compliance with health ordinances is a sign of lack of faith. It’s one of our differentiating traits: our faith is a friend to reason, not its enemy. Yesterday I saw several radical Islamists on social networks asking their jihadist brothers not to comply with the confinement measures, assuring them that this is a divine plague that only affects infidels. I listened to these exalted Islamist clerics and thought: Okay, boomer. Even the FBI in close cooperation with Charles Darwin would not have devised a more effective national-security strategy.
An old Spanish joke reflects well on where we Christians stand. There’s a guy who falls off a cliff and halfway down manages to grab hold of a branch. Dangling over the abyss, he shouts, “Is anyone there?” but all he hears is the echo of his voice. He asks again, louder this time: “Is anyone there?” And then he hears a quiet, peaceful voice: “Yes, my son, God is there. Fear not, let go of the branch, and let yourself fall into the void, that before your body crashes into the ground I should send 40,000 angels commandeered by my beloved Archangel St. Gabriel, who will, in unison, flap their powerful wings, creating a vacuum that would lift you back up to from where you fell.” “Okay, thank you,” replies the man, “but is anyone else there?”
Faith is required of Christians, but so are deeds — in this case, prayer and common sense. In other words, pray and do your part. When St. Peter walked on the water, Jesus told him to stand firm in faith and keep walking. He didn’t tell him to jump up and down to see if he could defy God’s miracle, sink, and drown.
During a recent homily, a Spanish priest said something that impressed me: “Many of the faithful have been asking me lately if the coronavirus is a punishment from God. Well, I don’t know . . . but it is easier for God to show his infinite mercy to men than his wrath. God’s wrath . . . is limited. What’s so special about God is his mercy, because it is infinite.”
Of course, no one is safe from anguish these days. I like the fear shown by the man who falls off the cliff in the joke, because it’s extremely human. So too were St. Peter’s doubts as he walked on water. But the best balm for all kinds of fear is God. I just attended the Good Friday services via the YouTube channel of Torreciudad, a shrine somewhere in the mountains of northeastern Spain. I was surprised to see that about 4,000 people were following the live broadcast. There are thousands of similar broadcasts happening at the same time around the world. In the midst of pain and uncertainty, it seems that many are returning to God, probably because there’s no anxiety pill better than prayer.
Before this pandemic, our modern society had declared a thousand times that there’s no need for God: that we can do everything we need with science, with our political systems, with our prosperity. The dominant religion in the world was the one that Leon Bloy described so well when referring to modernity: “Inside every modern person there is a small infallible Church of which he is Christ and Pope and its grand mission is to attract the greatest possible number of believers.” We were a proud society, only comparable to any car driver.
I’m afraid I’m going to look like a fool, but a few years ago I bought a new car. One of those big, long ones you buy just in case you have to escape a nuclear holocaust with all your family, friends, pets and house inside. I went to pick it up at the dealership. The garage it was parked inside was tiny. There was barely room to swing a cat, let alone a car. The guy at the dealership offered to drive it out himself, knowing the limited dimensions of the place. My pride took offence and immediately answered for me. “I’ll do it, thank you.” He shrugged.
Once I was inside the car, the man made stupid gestures from the other side of window. I rolled it down and he warned me: “Don’t forget that the reverse gear is the opposite of other cars!” I replied: “I know exactly what I’m doing!” I stuck my head out of the window, looked backwards, and accelerated. The car shot forward, crashing into three towers of spare wheels. The salesman, on the verge of hysteria, opened the door for me: “Please! Let me take it out for you!” But, I slammed the door shut, pushed the lock down and, even angrier, I shouted at him, “I know what I’m doing!” Then I put the car into gear again and it shot out backwards, forcing a mechanic to dive into the repair pit. When I managed to stop the damn car, one of my wheels was trapped inside the pit. It was a pitiful scene. Defeated, my pride and I got out of the car, our heads hanging low, and I handed the keys to the salesman, who by that point was frozen with the look of someone who had woken up in the middle of his own autopsy. As I contemplated the mess I had made, I understood more than ever what Chesterton meant when he said: “Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice”.
Which is an elliptical way of saying that that our pride often won’t give way until we can’t take any more. This seems to be what has happened to us with the coronavirus. Perhaps that’s why now, ashamed like children, we look upwards to God and ask Him to take our car out of the garage. In short, we’re having a great big serving of humble pie. I can’t think of anything more humiliating than having to go out into the street with a muzzle over our mouths as our dogs beam a big toothy grin right back at us.
Joel Dalmau provided translation work for this article.