Mass with the pope

Mass with the pope

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:

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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.

A modern day Saint Francis?

A modern day Saint Francis?

Last night, as I walked from the Basilica of St Francis back to my hotel, I moved slowly, and savoured every moment. I may never be in Assisi again.

Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not very observant. I guess I get lost in my thoughts, since I can easily walk past an acquaintance without seeing them. (On the bright side, custody of the eyes, while advisable, isn’t really a thing for me personally.)

Last night however, since I was consciously drinking in all the sights and sounds, I noticed a window of beautiful gold jewellery which was inspired, the surrounding ads told me, by St Francis of Assisi.

I winced. Maybe the “spirit of Francis” (the ideas and ideals he invokes, not his actual soul) did inspire the jeweller. Maybe the jeweller is a faithful devotee. A tertiary Franciscan even. But it’s gauche, I think, to employ the poor man of Assisi to sell expensive jewellery.

Moments later, when these thoughts conspired with my old habits to divert my attention from the wondrous details of Assisi’s streets and piazzas, a small boy racing towards me on his scooter brought me back to the present. He pulled a face and detoured abruptly. Not because of me, but because of the person walking in front of me, whom I confess I hadn’t noticed til now.

This person was wearing burlap. Potato sacks, roughly hewn together. I noticed bare legs and feet, red from the cold. (I’d guess the temperature was no more than 5 degrees.) The figure stopped another passer by, and as I walked past, I realised I was looking at a friar unlike any friar I have seen before. I realised this is how Francis appeared to his contemporaries – attracting pulled faces from children, and stares from people like me.

I wanted to take his photo, but I thought that would be rude and ungracious. I wanted to speak to him, but I didn’t think we’d speak the same language. So I walked on, and lost sight of him. He did not, however, leave my thoughts.

Hours later, I found him again, this time on the Internet. His name is Massimo Coppo. I wish I had spoken to him. He’s fluent in English:

This video raises many questions. Does modesty compel him to look down, or is he merely consulting a map? Is he the one who refuses an interview, or is that the hand and voice of a policeman?

I presume this footage was taken during the last conclave. Brother Massimo, who lives in Assisi and sleeps under the basilica porticoes, kept vigil in St Peter’s Square and attracted the attention of many pilgrims and journalists.

When this guy keeps vigil, he really keeps vigil!

When this guy keeps vigil, he really keeps vigil!

I found another YouTube interview, this one in Spanish. I include it for any Spanish-speakers who may be interested, followed by some translated extracts for the rest of us:

I want to urge you that instead of taking pictures of me, to please realize the difficult times we are living in, very difficult indeed. The new pope will have a very difficult job and we have to pray and prepare ourselves for suffering…much suffering is coming to the Church, The Vatican and us as individuals. We are nearing the endtimes, so instead of looking at me, look at the endtimes that we are fast approaching.

If we humble ourselves before God, he will provide for everything, it is especially important to pray together and ask Jesus to have mercy on us in these times where so many people are suffering and don’t know how they will make it through…and the church has so much to give! It is more than a human institution but sometimes people get confused. This is more than an election of a head of State, more than political matters, it is spiritual and we need to ask the holy spirit for a good pope. The next pope will have to suffer greatly because severe times await the church, particularly the Vatican.

The more I learn about Massimo Coppo, the more fascinated I become. In his past life, he earned multiple degrees, lived in America, and married. He was censured back in 1994, but the Bishop of Assisi rehabilitated him in 2005. And . . . wait for it . . . Massimo Coppo has his own blog!

Favours from a dear friend

Favours from a dear friend

My two days in Assisi were always going to culminate in a visit to St Francis’ tomb. I deliberately waited until the afternoon of the second day to make this pilgrimage.

St Francis is a massive figure in my life. I took his name at my Confirmation, and as a child I always thought I’d join the Franciscans if I consecrated my life to the Church. (That was always a whimsy though, not a serious resolution.)

In the last decade, the spirituality and writings of St Jean-Marie Vianney and St Josemaría Escrivá have influenced me more. Certainly I have read more of, and hence know more about, these two priests, than I do the holy man of Assisi.

But on the other hand, it’s only Francis to whom and with whom I have prayed every day for over 20 years. That’s two thirds of my life. So visiting his tomb is a big deal.

Thousands must have passed by Francis’ tomb while I sat here. The elderly, parents with young children, and as this photo illustrated by happy coincidence, religious. There were also many young people seriously discerning their vocation. Pray for them!

Thousands must have passed by Francis’ tomb while I sat here. The elderly, parents with young children, and as this photo illustrated by happy coincidence, religious. There were also many young people seriously discerning their vocation. Pray for them!

I could write so much more, but some things are very personal. Suffice it to say that when I sit down before the tabernacle and pray, I check my watch 30 minutes later only to find that a mere five minutes have passed. So another 25 more or less interminable minutes ensue. That’s my experience of prayer. Every time. Twice a day. For years. This is not a bad thing. It teaches us to spend time with and love God for His sake, not our own. (As with God, so with our neighbour.)

Before the tomb of St Francis, though, I checked my watch about ten minutes after sitting down, and two hours had passed already! I received the sort of consolations one can expect to receive two or three times in one’s life. Lots of encouragement, and some corrections too.

God is good.

Is this the best pizza in Umbria?

Is this the best pizza in Umbria?

Today’s lunch venue was recommended to me by a Facebook friend who is no less than a Conventual Franciscan friar. That must pack an extra punch, right?

“Try I Monaci. Best restaurant in Assisi!” I took Fr Benedict at his word, and I’m glad I did.

The restaurant isn’t easy to find. I entered the address into Google Maps, which mistakenly locates the restaurant at a doorway connecting perhaps the most charming alley way in all of Assisi. Food for my eyes, but otherwise unhelpful.

Looking up from the street.

Looking up from the street.

Looking down towards the street. People actually live here!! Blessed people.

Looking down towards the street. People actually live here!! Blessed people.

I persevered with my search, and eventually I found the restaurant a short distance away, and around the corner.

I'm including this sort of detail because if you come to Assisi, YOU MUST EAT HERE.

I’m including this sort of detail because if you come to Assisi, YOU MUST EAT HERE.

The menu is in Italian only, and it’s a big menu. I had no hope translating everything. But that didn’t matter, because a quick Google search located this detailed restaurant review, and I followed the reviewer’s recommendations.

To begin with, I ordered the Bruschetta Mista, washed down with a Peroni. The photo on the review page looks great:

Tomato, mushroom, chicken liver paste, and something else delicious.

Tomato, mushroom, chicken liver paste, and something else which is no doubt delicious.

My own order wasn’t so photogenic. Maybe because I was ordering for one. Who knows?

Less bruschetta ... but more beer.

Less bruschetta … but more beer.

But what this dish lacked in appearance, it made up for in taste. What flavour! I could go back for more right now.

I ordered a carafe of the house red to accompany my main course. My Italian let me down again, and I ended up with more wine than I expected. Fortunately, I’m not driving anywhere.

The wine was a bit rough. Rough, but not bad. When I turned 30, I declared that life is too short to drink bad wine, and I adopted a zero tolerance policy. Better to pour bad wine down the sink and drink water.

Today’s wine didn’t deserve that treatment. It’s just that it was sharp around the edges, and weak in the centre. The opposite, in fact, of a good Australian red, which is smooth edged and full bodied.

(When I was at university, I studied a subject in the History and Philosophy of Science which denounced and deplored that sort of non-scientific language. But I bet every reader who appreciates wine knows exactly what I mean. I think Wittgenstein is right: words derive their meaning from shared experience and use, not from quantifiable values.)

I was inclined to order a simple Margarita pizza, which is after all the Platonic form of pizza. (I’m really dropping philosophers’ names today!) But fortunately the review alerted me to another pizza, which is the only pizza I could possibly order under the circumstances:

Tartufo. Truffles! The food of God and kings.

Tartufo. Truffles! The food of God and kings.

What a pizza! I would happily eat the base even without topping. Light but crispy, satisfying but not filling. This was a big pizza, but finishing it was not a chore. More like a tragedy I wanted to delay.

The topping was delicious. Fresh tomato, stringy mozarella, and the earthiest, most “mushroomy” truffles I have tasted. This is probably because I normally experience the flavour of truffles via natural truffle oil. I’ve understood truffles were a delicacy everywhere. But maybe that’s not the case in Umbria, where they can be used in a pizza which is no more expensive than the others in the menu!

I didn’t bother with dessert. The service was a bit slow, but only because the restaurant was crowded. I haven’t seen that in any other restaurants in Assisi. I think locals eat here too, which speaks volumes.

I carelessly left my credit card in the hotel, but I had no need to worry. The little cash I had — 25 euros — was more than enough. I finished with an espresso, and I was good to go. But if ever I return to Assisi, I’ll eat here again. And so should you!

St Francis’ hermitage

St Francis’ hermitage

This morning I visited the Eremo delle Carceri hermitage on Mt Subiaso, four kilometres above Assisi. It has been built up over the centuries, but the earliest primitive monastery is easily discerned, not to mention the caves which initially attracted St Francis.

I started walking before daybreak. It took much less than the hour predicted, but the road is so steep it felt like two hours!

Just as I approached the gates, I was overtaken by a dozen or more taxis, from which a large and loud tour group emerged. I resented their chatter and their cigarette smoke, and most of all the ease of their arrival. How lazy, I thought. How soft. So I was not just resentful; I also felt superior.

It was a momentary lapse. Some of them were elderly, and one of them was in a wheelchair! Besides which, I freely chose to walk, though I was also free to come by taxi, like them. So where was this resentment coming from? Pride — that scourge of the human condition.

As I walked past the gate and away from the noise and smoke, I pondered pride’s various forms. It afflicts the poor as well as the rich. Francis’ “Lady Poverty” is no guarantee of sanctity. I think it’s not so much radical poverty which defined Francis, as his remarkable humility.

What else did he find here in his cave which prepared him for the life to come, as Our Lord’s forty days in the desert prepared him, and Paul’s retreat prepared him?

The friars ask pilgrims to not take photographs, so most of the following are care of Google, not me:

Most of the tourist guides describe a profound, even tangible, peace suffusing the Eremo delle Carceri. I didn’t get that. Maybe it was the cheesy Italian hymns piping through the original hermitage (monastic chant would be more appropriate; silence even better), but maybe too it relates to the spiritual history of the place.

Francis came here for respite, certainly, and it’s reasonable to imagine he sometimes received spiritual consolation here. But I bet he encountered desolation here too. Not to mention spiritual combat.

I learned yesterday that St Clare counselled Francis against abandoning his active ministry and withdrawing from the world. (That’s a common tactic of the enemy, it seems. The Curé of Ars was sometimes completely overwhelmed by a similar desire.) Francis must have really battled against that during some of his times at Mt Subiaso. And that’s just one battle front.

I think another reason Mt Subiaso is not as compelling as I expected is that the majesty and grandeur of Australian native forests compares to the greatest cathedrals; Subiaso’s alpine forest in contrast is like a modest basilica. Beautiful, but not overwhelming.

Still, it was a fruitful morning. Some resolutions came to mind, on how to live out the Marian year Bishop Echavarría has asked his sons and daughters to observe. That was unprompted.

And I saw first hand just how unforgiving was the poverty St Francis embraced. Wow. Just wow.

This is not comfortable

This is not comfortable.

Nothing cosy here

Nothing cosy here.

Papal doppelgänger

As you might expect, there are lots of piety shops in Assisi, selling a myriad of church goods.

This small statue of Pope Francis caught my eye. At least, I think it’s Pope Francis.


If you ask me, though, it looks more like one of our Australian bishops than it does the Bishop of Rome:


I don’t know Archbishop Wilson well enough to present this statue to His Grace, but I did almost buy it for a priest friend from Adelaide.

But no. Better to take a photo and blog about it!

Living faith in Assisi; dying faith elsewhere

Living faith in Assisi; dying faith elsewhere

As my first day in Assisi regretfully comes to a close, I still haven’t been to Francis’ mountain hermitage.

I was advised against it by locals who observed that the place closes at sunset, and the sun sets pretty early around here at this time of year. It would have closed probably just as I was arriving. So I’ll try again tomorrow.

Instead, I wandered around the old city, which is physically quite exerting, since the city is built on a surprisingly steep hillside. The streets of the old city are absolutely charming. I’m starting to imagine that Heaven not only abounds with truffles, but also with streetscapes like this:

It helps that it’s Christmas, and there are lights everywhere. It also helps that I spent the last few days before these ones in Rome. I don’t know why anyone would want to live in Rome. I don’t! But Assisi? That’s another matter.

When I returned to the hotel tonight, the concierge solved the mystery of St Agnes’ burial place. She is buried with her mother Bl Ortolana, and her sister Beatrice, both of whom joined the Poor Clares and died in the cloister. All three nuns are entombed in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, where I spent several hours today without ever noticing the graves.

One thing I have noticed is that there are a lot of young families wandering around Assisi. This contrasts with my impressions in Rome this week, and in Spain last year — the beatification ceremony of Bl Alvaro del Portillo notwithstanding. You just don’t see many children in Europe, largely because there aren’t many. But here, in Assisi, they’re everywhere. Which only serves to highlight, I deduce, that Assisi is a uniquely religious tourist attraction. The young parents here are counter-cultural. They are devout, and they have children.

If it wasn’t for Francis and the Franciscan movement he inspired, Assisi would be just one more stunningly beautiful but unremarkable medieval town, like the many others which populate provincial Italy. There aren’t any secular tourist attractions here. So the crowds that come — and they do come, if today is any measure! — are pilgrims, who are attracted by the life and legacy of St Francis, St Clare, and other holy collaborators.

The faith in Assisi is tangible. It’s in the crowds, in the relics and shrines, and in the very alley ways and city walls. It makes me wonder why elsewhere in Europe — elsewhere in Italy — Catholicism is in terminal decline.

Some people point to the secularist trends which characterised the second half of the twentieth century and proved unstoppable. But that’s a bit vague.

Others point to the Second Vatican Council. Some say it didn’t go far enough. Its spirit was thwarted, its promises dashed in retrograde acts like the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. The pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II undid all the good work of John XXIII, and clergy, religious, and people left in droves.

I find that explanation impossible to swallow. I was brought up on ‘conciliar Catholicism,’ and it neither attracted me or repulsed me. Its fruits, at least in my own experience, were tepid. It was only after I was exposed to Catholic traditions and practices which many people would call ‘pre-conciliar’ that my faith was personalised and deepened, and my love of God nourished.

Then there are others who point to the Second Vatican Council for different reasons. The vast majority of people in my own parish were catechised before the Council. Many of them blame the Council all right. But they don’t lament that it was thwarted. They lament that it was allowed to produce two generations who don’t know Catholic doctrine, who reject Catholic morality, and don’t come to Mass.

I’m not convinced that’s the answer either. It sounds feasible in the context of the Australian experience to deduce a causal link between the Church’s decline and the impact of the Council, but by all accounts the Church’s decline in Europe preceded the Council by many years.

So what’s the answer? Insofar as cause is concerned, I don’t know. Insofar as remedy is concerned, the answer is as simple as it is challenging. The Church need saints, who can do in our time what Francis and Clare did in theirs.

But instead, the Church has you and me. Better get cracking then.

“Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.”

— St Francis of Assisi