This morning at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Pope Francis celebrated the annual Chrism Mass for the Diocese of Rome. It was the first time he presided over a pontifical Mass inside the basilica, amidst all its interior splendor. Previous Masses – such as the Mass of Installation on March 19 and the Mass of the Passion of the Lord on March 24 – were celebrated outdoors in front of the basilica and beneath the sagrato there.
At this Mass, Pope Francis blessed the oils of the sick (olei infirmorum), the oils of the catechumens (olei catechumenorum), and the chrism oils (chrismatis) that will be used in all the sacramental celebrations of his diocese. Following the Mass, these oils were taken to the Papal Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano (or, St. John in Lateran), which is the seat of the cathedra or chair of the Bishop of Rome. From there, the oils will be sent out across the diocese for use in Rome’s several hundred parishes.
But, before he blessed the oils, some 1600 secular and religious priests renewed their vows, promising to unite themselves to Jesus, to conform themselves to Him, and to be more faithful stewards of the misteri di Dio in the Eucharist and the other liturgical celebrations. The Pope concelebrated the Mass with the cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, and the diocesan and religious priests present in Rome.
It was a tremendous and tremulous event of ecclesial communion, which was realized amidst the grandeur and splendor of Michelangelo’s magnificent edifice – as much a catechesis in stone as a testament to the artistic genius of Catholicism’s greatest artists and architects. For a time, the Church’s post-Vatican II liturgical ritual stood in dialogical communion with an ancient and glorious monument to the Church’s celebrated past.
Later in the evening, Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Supper of the Lord – or, Messa del Giovedi Santo in Coena Domini –at the Istituto Penale Minorile di Casal del Marmo, a juvenile detention center located on the outskirts of Rome. As of March 21, 2013, the center housed 251 inmates. Of those, 172 were men and 79 were women. Both Italian and foreign-born delinquents are incarcerated there. A significant number of them come from Africa. In the detention center’s small chapel, Pope Francis marked the commencement of the Church’s Sacred Triduum – the first of his pontificate.
The contrast between Michelangelo’s basilica and the juvenile prison chapel could not be more stark. One stands at the center of worldwide Catholicism. It is the choicest pilgrimage site of Catholics around the globe. The other is situated on the outskirts of Rome, far from the view of most of the world. Earlier this morning, the first teemed with faithful pilgrims, representing all the corners of the globe. Young religious women and men shepherded throngs of pilgrims into the church. And, the storied Cappella Sistina performed the traditional sacred music. This evening, 46 inmates filed into the chapel, wearing their distinctive clothes. 35 of them were men and 11 of them were women. Their ages ranged from 14 to 21. There were 8 Italians and 38 foreigners. In the words of the Vatican’s Sala Stampa, all of the juvenile delinquents face considerable personal and familial difficulties. A small makeshift prison choir led the congregation in the singing of simple music.
Yet, it is in the space of that contrast that the Church’s ecclesial communion is best realized. It is there, along that bridge between grandeur and simple pious faith, in the middle of pilgrims and prisoners, in the meeting between the world’s center and her peripheries, and in the embrace between Cephas and the million pebbles that course toward the rock that the Church awakens to the greatness of her vocation. Within that space – along that bridge – where one goes out to the other that the words of Pope Francis take on renewed light. On Wednesday, March 27 – at his first General Audience – Papa Francesco told his listeners that
“Holy Week challenges us to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others: those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help. We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold, but we should go out, with Christ, in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered. Holy Week is not so much a time of sorrow, but rather a time to enter into Christ’s way of thinking and acting. It is a time of grace given us by the Lord so that we can move beyond a dull or mechanical way of living our faith, and instead open the doors of our hearts, our lives, our parishes, our movements or associations, going out in search of others so as to bring them the light and the joy of our faith in Christ.”
It is upon that camino – that road – that the Church now embarks during these days of glory, which shall lead her toward the splendor of the rising sun of Easter.