In the above photograph Fr. Fidenzio Volpi, Apostolic Commissioner of the Franciscans of the Immaculate greets the Holy Father at the latter’s arrival at St. Mary Major on December 8th. The Friars of the Immaculate are the sacristans in the Basilica.
The narrative below is from John Allen Jr.:
Dec. 8 was the festival of the Immaculate Conception, known in Italy as the Immacolata, and Francis made the traditional outing to Rome’s Piazza di Spagna to venerate a column with a statue of Mary erected in 1857 to celebrate the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX three years earlier.
Francis composed a special prayer for the occasion, the heart of which was a plea that “the cry of the poor may never leave us indifferent, the suffering of the sick and of those in need may never find us distracted, the loneliness of the elderly and the fragility of children may always move us, [and] every human life may always be loved and venerated by all of us.”
It was a classic Francis outing. He showed up in a blue Ford Focus, not a Mercedes limo, not even riding in the back this time but sitting in the front chatting with his driver. He stopped briefly to greet shopkeepers, then decided to take an impromptu walk the rest of the way. He paused to greet locals and tourists, paying special attention to children and the sick. Some folks tossed the flowers they brought to honor Mary in the pope’s path, and he bent over to pick them up and carry them to the column.
Afterward, Francis crossed town to visit the Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome’s premier Marian shrine, to pause a few moments before the famous icon of Mary as Salus Populi Romani, “Protector of the Roman People.” He didn’t give a speech, and there was no scrum of photographers and TV cameras because Francis wanted it to be an intimate act.
This was the sixth time Francis has stopped at St. Mary Major since becoming pope, with the first coming on March 14, less than 24 hours after his election. It’s easily his most visited location in Rome outside the Vatican, illustrating how important the basilica and its dedication to Mary is to Francis’ spirituality.
As Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué notes in her terrific recent biography of Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio made a point of visiting St. Mary Major every time church business forced him to travel to Rome. The only difference now, Piqué writes, is that he shows up in a white cassock rather than a simple priest’s outfit. (She might also have observed that he no longer takes the bus.)
In popular parlance, “the Vatican” is shorthand for the papacy. One could argue, however, that the real spiritual center of this pontificate lies across town in St. Mary Major.