In the Footsteps of Pope Francis
On the evening of March 13, a man “from the ends of the earth” walked out on the central balcony of St. Peter’s and was introduced to the world as Pope Francis I. Everyone cheered, basked in the newness of at all, and then, like most normal people, went to bed, waking up the next morning to the opening of the first page of a new chapter in the history of the world.
For those of us on the American Chesterton Society pilgrimage to Rome, we never experienced that night between the Papal debut and the next morning. We were in the Atlanta airport on Wednesday afternoon, watching CNN’s abysmal coverage in anticipation of the new Pope. I was trying to pray, herd pilgrims onto a plane, and field several phone calls from my banker about, well, stuff. Then the plane took off, and when it landed, we were in Rome and it was time for breakfast. The only thing missing was the night in between those two events.
We arrived, however, at the most amazing guest house in Rome, over-looking St. Peter’s Square, offering a perfect view of that very same balcony where Pope Francis had just appeared only ten hours earlier. This set the tone of the pilgrimage. It seems that almost everywhere we went, we were in the footsteps of our new Pope. A couple of times we managed to converge with him, but for the most part, it was a case of just missing him. This is not a complaint. In fact, it lent a certain excitement to every step we took and every place we visited.
For example, we attended a special Mass, arranged just for us, that happened to be at the small Vatican church of St. Anne’s, just after the Pope had said his first public Mass there. And of course, we visited the place where Pope had said his first private Mass, the Sistine Chapel.
We also visited the other Sistine Chapel just after Pope Francis. (“What?” you ask.) Yes, the other Sistine Chapel. The first day after he was elected, the Pope went to St. Mary Major, one of the four great basilicas of Rome, to pray at a side chapel in front of an image of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The ancient painting is purported to be by St. Luke himself, who, even if he was not the one who left the record of her image, certainly left the record of her Magnificat. The church also has a chapel beneath the altar containing wood from Christ’s manger. But there is another chapel that the Pope visited. The other Sistine Chapel. Not the somewhat more famous one built by Pope Sixtus IV, where Popes are now elected (and where Michelangelo did so much of the interior decorating). Pope Sixtus V built a different Sistine chapel in St. Mary Major. And there Pope Frances knelt and prayed before the tomb of Pope St. Pius V. The chapel has been closed for two years because of some needed repairs to the ceiling and roof. When we arrived a few days later it was locked up again. But Deacon Spencer Howe, our invaluable man-on-the-ground-in-Rome, who worked so hard to set everything up for us, went and had a few words with the Franciscan friar who serves as rector for the Basilica. The friar said to him, “Well, if we can open it up a few minutes for the Pope, we can open it up a few minutes for you.” So we had the unique opportunity of being the first people to enter the Sistine Chapel after Pope Francis.
“And why is St. Pius V so important?” you also ask. He was a reformer. He introduced the simple white cassock that all popes since him have worn, symbolizing his taking the Papacy and the Church in a new direction, away from his luxurious predecessors who had watched Christendom come apart beneath them. He convened the Council of Trent and officially launched the Counter-Reformation. And out of a very divided Europe he managed to put together a coalition of kingdoms to take up arms against the Ottoman Empire that was about to attack, and certainly conquer, Rome. The Muslim forces were decisively defeated in the Battle of Lepanto. (And G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem about it.)
We did manage to meet our new Holy Father face-to-face when he said his first public Angelus. And when I say face-to-face, I mean we were looking at him eye level, albeit from across the St. Peter’s Square, from our privileged perch. Then we got much closer. Two days later, most of our brave pilgrims rose at 4 am to stand in line at the gates of the Square (which of course is round). When the gates opened at 6:30, they then made a mad dash to get to a good position for the Initiation Mass, which would not start for several more hours. The only people who outran them, of course, were nuns. Thousands of them. More evidence that the mightiest people in the Catholic Church are the women religious. But our Chesterton Academy students were thrilled to see the Holy Father at close range, as he processed through the crowd, on his way to receive the Papal ring and pallium.
On the latter part of our pilgrimage, we continued to walk in the footsteps of Pope Francis, but there was a marked difference. Instead of arriving just after him, we arrived just before him.
We visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the actual Cathedral Basilica of Rome. This is where he will officially take the chair of the Bishop of Rome. We had as our guide that day, the incomparable Dr. Elizabeth Lev, who explained that while St. Peter’s is where the Church puts on its “game face” and shows itself off rather well to the world, St. John Lateran, which is the first legally built church in history (which makes it rather old), is where the whole complicated story of the Church is on display in a collision of artistic styles. But what a story. Perhaps it is epitomized in the pillars of the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which are the very pillars that once held up the most important temple in Rome: the temple of Jupiter. Christ has triumphed in every respect.
We then went to Assisi, where Pope Francis will most certainly visit to pray before the tomb of the great saint whose name he has chosen. One of our pilgrims, Father Bob McElwee, a convert from Kansas said Mass for us in the Basilica of St. Francis, and exhorted the Chesterton Academy students to be leaders in rebuilding our civilization. Then we prayed for Pope Francis beside the tomb of St. Francis. One of the Franciscan friars there told the story of sitting by that tomb all day long and watching visitors come and go, and noting the change in their countenance from the mere curiosity of a traveler to the joy and peace of someone who has been touched by God. Assisi is quite simply one of the most beautiful and serene places on earth; it is easy to understand why St. Francis would have heard the voice of God in such a place.
Back in Rome, several of us visited The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, also known as The Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, the order which has for the first time in history, given the world a Pope. He will of course visit this Church, even though we beat him to it. He will no doubt kneel before the tomb of St. Ignatius of Loyola, surrounded by its stunning statuary depicting the Church’s grappling with heretics of various sorts. And then he will cross to the opposite chapel, where above the altar is a glass case holding the arm of St. Francis Xavier, the arm that baptized hundreds of thousands. Deacon Spencer said that if the case were opened, the arm would still try to baptize passersby.
There were a few more places I visited after the other pilgrims left, and one must be mentioned. I did not go to Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s, where I would have again seen the Pope. Instead I found myself in a small town in the mountains east of Rome. We began in a subterranean room, holding olive branches instead of palm leaves, which is the tradition in Italy. We then processed up a stairs into the street and entered the church, which was packed, and where there was a beautiful Mass. The town was Norcia. The underground room was the boyhood home of St. Benedict (and his sister St. Scholastica), and the church was built over his birthplace. This was the saint from whom our Pope Emeritus took his name, the Patron Saint of all Europe. More footsteps in which to follow.
And on this pilgrimage, we also followed the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, who visited Rome and wrote about it eloquently. But we’ll save that part of the story for next time.
Note: This report of the Chesterton Rome Pilgrimage was published in the latest issue of Gilbert Magazine.
Click here to view photos of the Chesterton Rome Pilgrimage