ROME – Popes, like other world leaders, speak a great deal, and their words are always parsed for hidden and implied meanings. Yet popes are also spiritual points of reference, and sometimes they can say more with silence than with speech.
That was the case with Pope Francis on Tuesday, who spent over an hour at a Roman shrine praying for peace, particularly in Syria, but during most of his visit he avoided the microphone, using it only to impart a final blessing.
Having made thousands of public appearances over the past five years, the pope’s decision to let the prayer do all the talking for him is rare but not unprecedented. He took a similar tack when he visited Auschwitz, the former German concentration camp in occupied Poland, in July 2016.
On that occasion too, he spent some time individually exchanging words with those present, including 25 “Righteous Among the Nations,” but for the most part he let silence be the message.
Speaking about it afterwards, Francis said: “The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been. In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were able to bring even into that abyss.”
Though Rome’s Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love is the opposite of “this place of horror,” as Pope Benedict XVI defined Auschwitz, Francis’s silence on Tuesday was equally eloquent.
Millions of pilgrims have flocked to this shrine on the outskirts of Rome, praying for personal intentions but also for peace. Romans credit Our Lady of Divine Love, portrayed in a 13th century fresco still on display at the shrine today, with sparing the city from destruction during the Second World War.
During WWII, before a final battle in 1944 that led to the liberation of the Eternal City from German occupation, Romans led by their bishop, Pope Pius XII, prayed to Our Lady of Divine Love, asking for the city to be spared.
A few days after liberation came, and surrounded by thousands of locals, Pius XII went to pray before the image of the Virgin, at the time temporarily held in the Church of St. Ignatius, and bestowed the title upon her of “Salvatrice dell’Urbe,” or “She who saves the city.”
Despite his silence on Tuesday, there’s no doubt as to what was on Francis’s mind when he prayed the rosary, as he’d referred to it twice in three days.
“Today, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love, as we recite the Rosary, we pray especially for peace in Syria and throughout the world,” Francis tweeted on Tuesday. “I invite you to pray the Rosary for peace during the entire month of May.”
He’d said similar words on Sunday at the end of his weekly Regina Coeli prayer, when he asked those gathered and those joining from their homes to pray the rosary throughout the month of May — considered by the Church as Mary’s Month — with peace and an end to the conflict in Syria as specific intentions.
That same day, soon after the Regina Coeli in which Francis also referred to the inter-Korean summit that took place last week, he tweeted: “Do we really want peace? Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.”
On Tuesday, as he was walking towards the altar where he led the rosary, he passed by hundreds of ex-voto images, short for ex voto suscepto, “from the vow made.” Crafted from silver or other precious metals and mostly shaped as hearts, they’re offerings traditionally made by the faithful after they believe a prayer has been answered.
The Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore, as it’s known in Italian, is dedicated to the Virgin, and consists of two churches: an old church built in 1745 and a new one that was built in 1999, fulfilling a promise made by Romans during WWII.
During the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II designated the site as one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome. The others are Rome’s four major papal basilicas- St. Peter’s, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major- plus the minor papal basilica of Saint Laurence outside the Walls and the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
According to tradition, the latter one houses relics of the Passion of Jesus Christ brought to Rome from the Holy Land.
Francis has called for peace in Syria repeatedly, including while addressing diplomats at the end of the year and during his Urbi et Orbi blessings on New Year’s and Easter. During the first year of his pontificate, he led a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square for peace in the war-torn nation.
In July he’ll be going to the southern Italian city of Bari for an ecumenical prayer for peace in Syria. He’s invited the patriarchs and head of Christian communities that have a presence in the Middle East, including the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
Though impossible to come by precise statistics, the number of casualties since the Syrian war began in March 2011 is estimated at 400,000 people, a majority civilians.
In July 2015, the United Nations migrants and refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that there were more than seven million people internally displaced, and as of July 2017, there were over five million refugees.
Two weeks ago, responding to an alleged chemical attack perpetrated by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, the United States, Britain and France launched a missile strike, intended to weaken Syria’s chemical weapons capability.
The strike was forcefully condemned by Christians on the ground. Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, said the April 7 attack was justified by “lies” that reflect “Satan’s language.”
They were “based on lies and disinformation,” pushed forth by “people who have no morals, and they’re working with the bad one, I mean the devil. Their lies are Satan’s language and way of dealing with things.”
In a joint statement issued by three Syrian patriarchs after the strike, they said they “condemn and denounce the brutal aggression that took place this morning (Saturday) in our precious country Syria by the USA, France and the UK, under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”
“We call upon all churches in the countries that participated in the aggression, to fulfill their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the Gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace,” they wrote.