Ritualizing in the Time of Coronavirus

– by Barry Stephenson

Dating from the 4th century, Rome’s San Marcello al Corso houses a crucifix that began its famed career by surviving a devastating fire in May of 1519. Three years later, during the height of a plague, friars of the Servant of Mary, disregarding the prohibitions imposed by the civil authorities, carried the crucifix for sixteen days through the streets of Rome. By the time the good friars returned to the Church, so the legend goes, the plague had subsided, a further testimony the miraculous qualities of this particular crucifix. John Chrysostom praised the Cross as “our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin, and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The Cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the Only-Begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world.” Reading these words, semiologists would no doubt advise us that the cross is an “overdetermined” symbol. Crucifixes are objects of power–spiritual, political, emotional. They are a saturated phenomenon, possessing density, depth, weight, gravitas. Some are connected to stories of victory in battle, some to the healing of illness, some to the politics of identity, still others to the travails of war and forced migration. Crucifixes are part of the liturgical art installed in churches, but they are also mobile, portable ritual objects. Crucifixes, if not too big, process well, linking together stationary sacred locales by generating a kinetic wave of the religious in the midst of profane space.

Pope Francis, in San Marcello, March 15, 2020

Since 1650, the St. Marcellus Crucifix has been carried in procession and installed in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Years, jubilee occasions that occur every 25 years in the Catholic Church, unless the Pope calls an “extraordinary jubilee,” in response to some special event, which is precisely what Pope Francis did in answer to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sunday, March 15, Pope Francis, like those friars before him, disregarded the government-imposed quarantine and walked Rome’s deserted streets, from Vatican City to the Church of St. Marcellus. There he prayed before the Marcellus Crucifix, alone and in silence, for the sick and the dead. But Francis was also preparing the ground for the removal and installation of the Crucifix in St. Peter’s for a “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City [of Rome] and to the World”). A Urbi et Orbi is a special form of Apostolic Blessing, normally reserved for the Easter and Christmas seasons, but capable of being staged for extraordinary circumstances or special occasions. The Papacy needs little prodding to enact ceremony; there seems to be a rite, a protocol, a gesture informing not simply a ‘special’ but nearly every occasion. When everything is special nothing is. But if the adjective “extraordinary” ever applied to a situation, a scenario, a development, it is most certainly the present moment.

Plague is not unprecedented, to be sure. The Black Death, flu, and cholera pandemics haunt our historical narratives. The flu outbreak at the close of the First World War killed tens of millions. HIV/AIDS related deaths peaked in 2005-2006, killing some 2 million people; close to 40 million have died from HIV/AIDS since 1981. We ought to be cognizant of danger of infectious disease. Yet, in spite of recent encounters with SARS and H1N1 and a few Hollywood films trafficking in the spectacle of a global epidemic (with an accompanying descent into social chaos (in the movies, the worst brings out the best only the hero), the Coronavirus shocks not only because of the scenes of flooded hospitals and bulldozed mass graves, but the due to the radical impact on the routines, habits, and rounds of daily life. Governments decide what services are ‘essential,’ and everyone else is to stay at home–including priests. The self-isolation directive is perhaps especially hard-hitting to those in the so-called ‘helping professions,’ since help is predicated on face-to-face, hand-to-hand, body-to-body contact. Precisely at the moment when help is needed, the power to deliver it is suppressed by the need to limit bodily engagement and social contact: a logical conundrum with deep moral torque and tension.

Usually delivered from the papal balcony to thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square, three days ago Pope Francis enacted the Urbi et Orbi from a raised platform overlooking a completely empty square. The benediction invoked Mark’s Gospel, the story of Jesus calming the tempest, which Francis connected to the requisite attitude required to face pandemic. As  a teenager, back in the 80s, I used to roll my eyes at televangelist Reverend Robert Schuller when he roared the slogan for his popular Hour of Power: “Don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING!” But I wonder if Pope Francis didn’t feel something of this call? As nurses, doctors, virologists, and civil servants kick into high gear, most everyone else, clergy included, are put on lockdown–the body mostly fixed in space as the mind races and reels to comprehend the event. So, as Italy was collapsing under the volume of sickness and death, Pope Francis decided to go for a walk; he could sit still no longer. He had to respond–and he responded ritually, drawing on the rich traditions his Church affords him.


We seldom think about ritual and practice it less, until it sneaks up on us, most obviously during the occasions of marrying and burying. Ritual often kicks in when faced with situations beyond the power of reason to wrestle them to the ground, or the force of the will to bend them to its course. Sickness and death are one such situation. One of the unusual features of plague is the inability to respond in the ritual tracks our culture has laid down for us. Not only does COVID-19 make people sick and kill at a high rate, it bars us from contact with the bodies of family and friends suffering it or killed by it. You can’t take your aunt chicken soup; you can’t hold your dying father’s hand. Dead bodies can’t be easily recovered and moved; funerals are put off; practices such as washing the body of the dead are suspended. Worry and grief are often eased by the ritualized gestures we perform. The fact that we are bodies means that the mediatized comforts afforded us in the era of Facebook and Twitter go only so far. As I imagine the scene, Pope Francis had had enough, he needed to respond ritually, that is, with not just his words, or his soul, but with his body.


Masked workers remove the San Marcello Crucifix for installation at St. Peter’s

On one hand, the Pope’s walk to St. Marcello and the Urbi et Orbi at St. Peter’s was all standard Catholic ritual fare. What was unusual was the context, of course, but also the solitary nature of the Pope’s acts. The images of masked attendants removing the crucifix for transport are strange. There is something grotesque about them, and they set the imagination on fire. But the images of a lone Pope walking Rome’s streets and speaking to an utterly vacant St. Peter’s square are equally arresting. Normally a public figure awash in the charisma of his office and surrounded by the devout, Francis was on this occasion simply by himself and, to my mind, simply himself. He had become the incarnation of the ‘simple priest’ which he often extols as his ideal. Surrounded by emptiness, the photographs of Francis project a state of being ‘alone with the alone,’ as the Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabī says. ‘Arresting’ is the right word for these images–the state of being stopped, brought to a halt. COVID-19 has brought many changes to the wealthy west’s cavalier engagement with mobility. In my own case, there seems to be some sort of inverse square law at work: The more my body is slowed and corralled and fixed in space–I’m presently midway through a 14-day self-isolation–the more my mind leaps and races. Studying the photos of Pope’s Francis’s ritual engagement with the San Marcello Crucifix, what struck me was the calm, slow, deliberate, reflective, and solitary nature of those acts.

Much of the rhetorical response to COVID-19 is imbued with an activist language calling for economic ‘stimulus,’ the waging of ‘war,’ the ‘explosion’ of delivery services, the ‘flow’ of supplies; meanwhile, the majority of us are ‘stuck,’ ‘locked-down,’ ‘shut-in,’ ‘isolated,’ and ‘quarantined.’ The disjunction between the activist social imaginary and the lived experience of self-isolation only serves, I think, to heighten our dis-ease. Chaos feeds on itself. ‘Pandemic’ means, literally, “of or belonging to ‘all’ (pan) ‘people’ (demos).” One hears echoes in the word: ‘pandemonium,’ ‘panic,’ ‘Pandora,’ ‘Pan.’ Pan, the Greek goat god of nature, personifies our cognizance of that which is all or wholly nature, behavior at its most nature-bound, most nature-determined. To experience ‘Pan’ is to experience a force, a power, a presence beyond the abilities of our reason or ego or will or culture to account for it, to deal with it, to understand it. What do we do in such situations? Some theories of myth and ritual point to their origins in precisely such limit experiences. A story, a joke, a gesture, an utterance–all shots in the dark aimed at shedding a little light or making the strange seem a little more familiar.

In yesterday’s press conference, President Trump intoned, with his characteristic indifference, the impending rise in alcohol and drug abuse in the wake of the social distancing accompanying the Coronavirus. There are other perhaps less damaging responses when standing face-to-face with the unknown and radically new, though even these ought not to be pathologized or written off as mere ‘opiates.’ As a non-Catholic, I somewhat surprised myself with the thought that we could follow the example of Pope Francis. We could respond ritually. It wouldn’t be hard to do.

We could put down our phones, stop binge-watching Netflix, set-aside the news for a time, and ritualize by pilfering Francis’s gestures. We could wash our hands, slowly, with intent this time, removing any potentially lethal viruses along with the worry, fear, and frustration accumulated in the course of the day. We could find a small object in our home, one that has some special meaning, history, significance; perhaps a significance that in some way connects with the current crisis we find ourselves in. With our hands clean, we could clean the object. After all, viruses, like fear and joy, hate and love, can stick to objects. We could take it up, hold it, think about its past, where it came from, why it is special, what it means to us, why we hold on to it, why we would be sad to lose it. We could walk with it through the house, slowly, quietly. We could tell it what is happening outside, beyond our walls. We could take it to visit another special object in our home or move it to a special spot. We could place it on the mantle or above the door or on the coffee table, and adorn it with some feathers or ribbons or flowers or paper snowflakes. We could recite a prayer, if we know one; or we could curse viruses; or tell the COVID-19 joke we heard yesterday; or recite the names of those in our town or city that succumbed to the disease. We could ask our friends and family, isolated as they are in far off places, to do the same, each day, in unison with our gestures: We could plan, alongside the daily Facetime, some RitualTime. What could it hurt? With time on our hands, let’s place in them something else other than a mobile device.