I realised afterwards that the altar on which the Mass we had sung in was being celebrated had on the floor before it the tomb of that prince of Vatican church music Pierluigi da Palestrina.
Rome, is of course, full of music and it’s not all necessarily religious. Our surprise evening was to be taken to a characteristic taverna Romana where we not only dined gargantually well (big antipasto, two courses of pasta, stinco, vegetables, sweet and so forth – none of which we could really finish) but were serenaded by a captivating roman minstrel.
So much so that some of the older ladies in the choir joined in the (often saucy) songs they’d remembered and sang since their youth.
Netx day we all got ready to participate in the audience the Pope gives every Wednesday morning. Our host guided us through the hidden parts of the Vatican and I attended a Mass given in the catacombs just next to the bones of Saint Peter. We were joined by two nuns from the Blessed Mother Theresa’s convent in Ranchi, India. It was just gone seven o clock, the great basilica was empty above and I felt a great peace enter my whole being.
Again, the priest officiating was brilliant and the sermon was most illuminating. The beautiful chapel we were in was decorated on each side by bas reliefs showing scenes from the lives and martyrdoms of eastern European saints.
We then exited into Saint Peter’s square which was filling up fast. We were amazed to find that our seating was so close to where the Holy Father would speak.
Finally, the man himself entered on the dais to immense cheering. I’d seen a couple of popes before, the last one being Pope Benedict XVI in spring 2011, but the reception Pope Francis received was on another level. Whether you are a fervent devotee or a rabid atheist, whether an evangelist or a Buddhist whether an ancestor worshipper or a member of the Cao Dai sect you have to admit that the present leader of the Roman Catholic church has, within the space of one year, harnessed hidden energies and transformed attitudes in the minds and souls of both believers and non-believers. In short, he is a true mega-star and fully entitled to be one.
In his “udienza” the Pope talked about two of the sacraments: ordination and marriage. With regard to ordination he said “Il vescovo e il sacerdote che non rinnovano il proprio dono, perdono l’unione con Gesù, diventando una mediocrità che non fa bene alla Chiesa”, which translates as (and everything was translated into six languages Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Polish and English) “the bishop and the priest who do not renew their gift lose their union with Christ, become a mediocrity which does the church no good.”
These hard-hitting words had a particular resonance with us as we felt that our own parish priest could have made a little more effort to be with us and not plead ill-health for his absence. I don’t wish to enter into the politics of the local situation since everything resolved itself in a wonderful way and it truly seemed as if Pope Francis had guessed our somewhat mixed-up feelings about our relationships with church dignitaries.
Because, in my opinion, Pope Francis says more sense than any other bishop of Rome in recent times has said, I’d like to sum up the rest of what he said to us that morning:
At the foundation of both sacraments of ordination (for religious entrants) and marriage (for the rest of us), which represent the road by which people habitually go as Sacrament to the Lord, there is Love. Without love everything loses its meaning, it’s the same love that Christ has for the Church. I focus on the relationship between ordinated people and the communities they serve. This is a service that must be powered by prayer, listening to the Word of God, with the daily celebration of the Eucharist and also with the Sacrament of Penance. The bishop and the priest who do not carry out these obligations lose union with Jesus and become a mediocrity that is not good for the Church. I also address those who, in their hearts hear the Lord’s call, encouraging through prayer that this invitation will grow and bear fruit throughout the Church.
In my opinion, this is a very hearty criticism of the way the church is governed by too many of its religious leaders today. Pope Francis almost seems to imply that the tables could be turned. It is now, in many respects, us laypeople, who have to show the religious priests the way forwards – not the other way round.
This is yet another of the present Pope’s quiet revolutionary way of saying things and long may he continue to say them and long may we support him and give him all the help he needs (and we needed too!)
There must have been a good sixty thousand people present at the pope’s audience. Afterwards Pope Francis spent most of his time wandering around the crowds but mainly concentrating on the disabled children and adults for whom he has an especial and very understandable soft spot for. We were thus not disappointed that he didn’t have time to speak to us personally, it was just wonderful to be in his presence, to know he was there within a short distance of us and surely would be thinking of all his followers.
And for the whole time Pope Francis was speaking it didn’t rain! (It did afterwards, of course, but isn’t that a sort of power of papal intercession?)