ROME – Amidst growing calls from Pope Francis and his closest collaborators to pay more attention to the voice of the laity, the pontiff reminded the Church that Mary, the mother of Jesus and his first disciple, was a lay person.

“Don’t forget that Mary was a lay person,” Francis said in Loppiano, a small town in Tuscany. “The first disciple of Jesus, his mother, was a member of the laity. And there is a great inspiration.”

The pontiff also said that a “nice exercise” when facing moments of tribulation is to think “What would Mary do [in this situation]?”

Visiting Italy’s Tuscany region on Thursday, Francis paid homage to two Christian communities that in their own way, try to live the Gospel: Nomadelfia, founded by Father Zeno Saltini, and Loppiano, the first of 24 towns around the world that were founded by the Focolare.

Loppiano, where the faith is the heart of the community

Francis said he wanted to visit Loppiano – that has 750 inhabitants – because it works as an “illustration of the mission of the Church today,” as it was outlined by the Second Vatican Council.

“And I’m glad to talk with you to increasingly focus on listening to God’s plan, Loppiano’s project at the service of the new stage of witness and proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus to which the Holy Spirit is calling us today,” he said.

This tiny town – that hosted 7,000 people for the papal visit – is the first among 24 diffused worldwide and are also known as “Marian cities.”

The website of the Focolare describes these communities as wanting to offer a model of coexistence founded on the evangelical principles of solidarity and fraternity, that are at once unique but also able to be repeated elsewhere.

Visibly in a good mood, Francis joked with those gathered from the beginning, saying that his speech had “14 pages, you will get bored” and revealing that he’d been given the questions posed to him by several people, so he could prepare the responses.

At the beginning of his pontificate, the Argentine pope would go full-off-the-cuff in these Q&A events, completely disregarding the prepared text. Lately, however, he’s chosen to read them while adding anecdotes and jokes here and there.

This was the case in Loppiano, where he encouraged the Focolare to continue living and promoting “the culture of unity” not “a culture of uniformity,” and “the culture of encounter and alliances.”

Talking about Christian joy, Francis said that he used to know a priest who was always busy, but who never stopped smiling. “He had a great sense of humor,” the pontiff said. “Those who knew him used to say that he had the capacity to ‘laugh at others, at himself and his own shadow.’”

His comments about Mary being a lay person came off-the-cuff, as he spoke about the upcoming new feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, which he instituted earlier in the year and which will be marked yearly on the Monday after Pentecost.

“Mary is the mother of Jesus, and in Him, the mother of all of us, the mother of unity,” Francis said.

The shrine dedicated to Our Lady the Theotókos in Loppiano, he added, is an invitation to “enter into the school of Mary, to learn to know Jesus, to live with Jesus and in Jesus, present in each one of us and amidst us.”

Looking up from his prepared remarks, he said that Mary, Jesus’ first disciple, was a lay person. Francis then suggested the exercise of thinking “what would Mary do” when facing challenging situations, some of which are in the Gospel, most of which are not, “but the Gospel says that His mother was there.”

Giving the example of the Wedding of Cana, the pontiff said that she “took the Word and moved forward,” ordering the people serving at the feast to do what Jesus said.

He said asking ‘What would Mary do?’ will help guide people forward: “Because she was a woman of fidelity, creativity, courage, parrhesia, patience, of putting up with things. Always remember this. She was a lay person.”

Answering one of the three questions posed to him, about how the small town can help in evangelization amidst the challenges the world faces today, Francis said that the story of Loppiano is still in its beginning, “a small seed thrown into the furrows of history and that has already sprouted luxuriantly, but that must put strong roots and bear substantial fruit, at the service of the mission of proclamation and incarnation of the Gospel of Jesus that the Church today is called to live.”

This mission, the pope said, “calls for humility, openness, synergy, risk capacity.”

The crises, often dramatic, facing the world today cannot leave anyone indifferent, Francis said, adding that we demand “our best, always trusting in the grace of God.”

To build a culture of encounter and a global civilization of the covenant, he said, everyone – men and women, young people, families, people of all vocations and professions – must work together.

Nomadelfia, where “fraternity is law”

Francis began his morning trip by visiting the tomb of Father Zeno Saltini, who founded the community of Nomadelfia in the former concentration camp of Fossoli, run by the German SS during WWII. In 1947 he founded the community to offer a home to the children orphaned or abandoned during the war.

The town is structured into 12 family groups, composed of about 25-30 people. With some 300 people in total living in Nomadelfia, the tradition to give a home to foster children continues. There are no last names, so as to not differentiate. There are no owners of the fields or the livestock that help feed the community, nor employees: Adults work where needed, and take care of the schooling of the children.

“Faced with the suffering of children who are orphaned or marked by troubles, Don Zeno understood that the only language they understood was that of love,” Francis said when addressing the small community. “Therefore, he knew how to identify a peculiar form of society where there is no room for isolation or loneliness, but the principle of collaboration between different families is in force, where the members recognize themselves as brothers in the faith.”

Pope Francis poses for a photo with youth of the Nomadelfia community in Italy Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

Nomadelfia rises among the hills of the Mediterranean countryside, in the southern part of Tuscany. Its inhabitants have chosen the evangelical law of fraternity as their “rule,” hence the name, that comes from the Greek terms nomos and adelphia, “fraternity is law.”

Saltini’s community was temporarily suspended by the Vatican in the 1950s, so he left the priesthood to be able to care for the foster children.

He conceived the figure of the “vocation mother,” women who, not having wed, cared for the children. The first of them was Irene, to whom Francis also paid respect, since  her tomb is close to that of Saltini’s.

Ever since, some 5,000 children, all of them orphans, detainees, disabled, victims of violence, or war refugees have been “saved” in Nomadelfia.

Speaking ahead of the papal visit, Francesco Matterazzo, current president of the community, said that they want to demonstrate that the Gospel “can be lived on a social scale, by giving oneself entirely to the others and implementing those principles of justice and fraternity which we choose to abide by, on a path of the sharing of faith and life.”

Francis’s short visit included a short play, with song and dances performed mostly by the children living today in Nomadelfia.

According to the pontiff, this community is a “prophetic reality that aims to realize a new civilization.”