This morning I concelebrated Mass in St Peter’s Basilica with the Holy Father. Visitors are asked not to take photographs, so I don’t have photos of the Mass, or of Pope Francis.
Here’s a photo, though, which I took immediately before Mass:
We had to arrive a good two hours before Mass started, we were vested an hour and a half before Mass started, and we were seated an hour before Mass started.
What to do? For a while, I wondered at the scale and grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica. This is my second visit to St Peter’s. I last came to Rome in 2002, when St John Paul II canonised St Josemaría Escrivá. Even though I’ve seen it all before, I was awed all over again. St Peter’s Basilica is a sight to behold.
Half an hour before Mass began, the congregation was invited to pray the rosary together. An excellent suggestion! Each of the mysteries was declared in Italian, English, and Spanish. The prayers themselves were prayed in Latin. Just as well I’ve learned the rosary in Latin to pass the time during long country drives!
I only realised at the end of Mass, though, that the Latin texts were available to everyone at the back of the Mass booklet which every person in the basilica received:
At the conclusion of the rosary an announcement was made in Italian and English. Since we’re all here to pray the Mass, let’s refrain from applause when the Holy Father enters.
Another excellent suggestion! At the papal masses I attended in Sydney and Madrid, the opening hymn was invariably drowned out by the applause of people glimpsing Pope Benedict for the first time. This time though, while people (me included) still turned and craned their necks to glimpse Pope Francis, the solemnity of the entrance procession was sustained, and a spirit of prayer and recollection set the tone for the rest of the Mass. Maybe it helped, too, the pope himself was very solemn. He kept his eyes fixed on the altar.
Pope Francis is frailer than I expected. He moved slowly, and received assistance climbing the altar steps. He read the prayers, rather than proclaiming them, with very little expression, and at great speed. A bit like he was out of breath – not that he was coughing or wheezing. Still, it is winter. A lot of locals have colds!
The Mass was in Latin, which I was able to follow using the supplied booklet. The Holy Father preached in Italian, so I wasn’t able to follow that. But it was posted online less than an hour later:
Led by the Spirit, the Magi come to realize that God’s criteria are quite different from those of men, that God does not manifest himself in the power of this world, but speaks to us in the humbleness of his love. God’s love is great. God’s love is powerful. But the love of God is humble, yes, very humble. The wise men are thus models of conversion to the true faith, since they believed more in the goodness of God than in the apparent splendour of power.
And so we can ask ourselves: what is the mystery in which God is hidden? Where can I find him? All around us we see wars, the exploitation of children, torture, trafficking in arms, trafficking in persons… In all these realities, in these, the least of our brothers and sisters who are enduring these difficult situations, there is Jesus.
It was hard to pray Mass today. The beauty of the basilica, and the fact I was concelebrating with the pope was distracting. It was a bit like my first few weeks as a deacon, and again as a priest. In each instance, the sheer novelty made interior recollection impossible. (For a while I thought I was doomed as a priest always to say the Mass and never to pray it. But it passed.) I regret I couldn’t be more prayerful at today’s Mass, but it wasn’t for want of trying, and I don’t think our Lord was offended. He knows my heart.
I was surprised that during the recessional, Pope Francis was as remote as he had been throughout Mass. Pope Benedict would bless the crowds as he processed out, smiling and shifting his gaze here and there, so that you were sure he had looked straight at you! But Pope Francis did not smile, and looked straight ahead.
I think the Mass tired him. Thankfully, he was more animated half an hour later, when he led the Angelus from his office window.
The Holy See has published the entire Mass on YouTube, and an eagle eyed reader spotted me, at 48:20. The Holy Father was preaching at that point. I had no idea what he was saying, but I listened hard and prayed for him, and for his pontificate.