At 7 am each day, St. Peter’s Square sits in a stillness broken by the noise of water blowing off the large fountains and the chatter of gulls. At this early hour the only life is at the hotel-like Casa Santa Marta just inside the gate to the left of the great basilica. Here the Pope celebrates daily Mass with a small group of worshippers, seldom numbering more than 50 persons. Writing to a priest-friend, Francis explains: ““In the Casa Santa Marta, I’m visible to people and I lead a normal life … I’m trying to stay the same and to act as I did in Buenos Aires.”
Photographs of the morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta are instructive. On most days a dozen or more priests or bishops are present dressed in albs and stoles. The Pope’s vestments are simple and unadorned. The congregation is mostly made up of different groups of Vatican employees, laymen and women, and nuns. Those in attendance include bareheaded women secretaries, a cluster of Swiss guards attend in ceremonial uniform but without helmets, and laymen in jackets but without ties.
Soon after his election, Francis’ practice of improvising daily homilies from brief written notes caused concern. In early April, Vatican News Services provided only the briefest of summaries of these talks. As late as May 31 they declined to provide a full text, explaining that it would require aural transcription reworking of the pope’s words. Widespread interest in these to these talks, however, caused them to appear in news stories and blogs. Today, the remarks given by the Holy Father at his 7 a.m. Mass are transcribed by a reporter from Vatican Radio or the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and posted later in the same day on the web.
The homilies given in conversational style in Italian, sparkle with humor. “Wine,” Francis remarks, “makes me think of the wedding at Cana… Our Lady…imagined that the wedding feast might therefore end with the drinking of tea or juice: It would not do.”
An emphasis on personal prayer shines through these talks. When asked by a fellow Jesuit about the roots of his religious belief, Francis answered: “For me, faith began by meeting with Jesus. A personal meeting that touched my heart and gave a direction and a new meaning to my existence.”
But there can also be a sharp edge to these remarks: “The key that opens the door to the faith is prayer…. When a Christian does not pray, he becomes “arrogant, is proud, is sure of himself. He is not humble. He seeks his own advancement.” The theme of encountering Christ frequently recurs. “How do we pray? Do we pray …out of habit, piously but unbothered, or do we put ourselves forward with courage before the Lord to …ask for what we’re praying for?” Francis speaks in terms ordinary people can understand. “The Lord,” he notes, “never gives or sends a grace by mail: never! He brings it Himself! What we ask for…is the envelope that grace is wrapped in. But the true grace is Him, Who comes to bring it to me.”
Francis applies the theology of personal encounter to all the sacraments. He describes those who refuse to speak with a priest under the pretence that they confess directly to God. “It’s easy,” he said. “It’s like confessing by e-mail … God is there, far away; I say things and there is no face to face encounter.” He applies a personalist approach to each of the sacraments. ““The Lord Jesus,” Pope Francis emphasizes, “accompanies us in our personal lives with the sacraments. A sacrament is not a magical rite, it is an encounter with Jesus Christ. ” In every sacrament, “we encounter the Lord. And he is by our side and accompanies us as a travelling companion”.
Francis places prayer at the intersection of faith and reason. “There is only one way we can understand the mystery of our salvation, Francis explains, “and that is: on our knees, in contemplation. Intelligence is not enough.” The Christian intellectual, he notes, must always be “looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center… to be searching, creative and generous.” But those who Christianity is purely conceptual are strongly criticized. “The faith of those who do not pray,” Francis warns, easily loses its essence, and becomes an “ideology, without a Jesus…in his tenderness, his love, and his meekness.”
A the end of the Casa Santa Marta Mass, worshippers scatter to their offices and slowly the din of cars, scooters, sirens, and horns begins to rise up from the nearby streets. The moment of prayerful reflection stands in sharp contrast to the hubbub of activity that the new day brings. Soon a long line of chattering visitors has begun arcing around the wide-armed colonnade of St. Peter’s Square as they wait to pass through metal detectors into the Basilica. At nearby Porta Santa Anna, Swiss guards in blue smocks ward off curious tourists, while a constant stream of delivery trucks, black limousines, and pedestrians into inner reaches of Vatican City. The apparatus of a busy city-state is in full operation, with consultations, public and private meetings, and ceremonies: it is all a remarkable contrast to the Mass at Casa Santa Marta, and Pope Francis’ morning walk with God.