ROME – Despite the ethereal air that has often surrounded popes over the centuries, Francis is famous for projecting ordinary humanity. Usually that everyman ethos expresses itself in warmth and approachability, though every now and then we also get a glimpse of grumpiness, as happened on New Year’s Eve when Francis slapped away an overly clingy woman in St. Peter’s Square.

More rarely still, we also see this pope showing another classic human emotion – grief. Ironically enough, the most recent case in point also came on New Year’s Eve, although it didn’t generate anything like the media echo of the slapping incident.

On Dec. 31, Pope Francis attended the funeral Mass of a friend, Italian laywoman Maria Grazia Mara, nicknamed “Nella,” who died at the age of 95 the day before. The pope showed up at the Church of St. Joseph on Rome’s Via Nomentana at roughly 3:00 p.m. unannounced, placed some flowers on the casket, and then took a seat in the front row to the right of where the body was lying in repose.

When the auxiliary bishop scheduled to celebrate the Mass, Bishop Guerino Di Tora of Rome’s northern sector, was informed of the pope’s presence, he sent somebody out to ask if the pope wanted to preside himself. Francis sent word back that he wouldn’t be celebrating or concelebrating the Mass, because he simply wanted to mourn the loss of his friend.

These details, by the way, are thanks to veteran Italian journalist Luigi Accatoli, who chased them down and posted them to his blog. He drew them in part from the Teresian Institute in Italy, a pious association to which Mara belonged.

According to Accatoli’s account, when time came for communion, the pope simply got in line with everyone else in the church. At that point, two of the concelebrants came to him – because communion was being distributed under both species – and administered it to him in his row.

Later, Di Tora once again sent somebody to ask the pope if he wanted to lead the Rite of Committal, the final ceremony of a Catholic funeral, and once again Francis sent word back that he was only there to attend and everything should proceed as previously planned.

After the Mass ended, while the concelebrants were still in the sacristy taking their vestments off, Francis left the church without any formal greeting, the same way he arrived. He stopped to greet some of the other mourners on his way out.

Though unusual, the idea of a pope simply attending a Mass unannounced without playing any role himself in the celebration isn’t unprecedented. Francis himself did the same thing in 2015, for instance, when he showed up at a 7:00 a.m. Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast of St. Pius X, where the burial urn of Pius X was on display.

Mara was born in Milan in 1923 but grew up in Tunisia, where her father was serving as a medical doctor on a charitable basis. Tunisia at the time was a French territory, and when Italy and France broke relations over the rise of fascism, Mara and her parents were put on a boat bound for Rome. They were not allowed to bring any of their possessions, and so the family had to start over from nothing in a time of deep nationalist hostility to people who returned to Italy from abroad.

She went on to become a distinguished Church historian and professor of ancient Christian literature, authoring works such as Augustine Interpreter of Paul (1993) and Wealth and Poverty in Primitive Christianity (2015). She was a faculty member at Rome’s La Sapienza University, and also taught at the Augustinian Patristics Institute just across from St. Peter’s Square. Mara was particularly fond of the thought and writing of the Dutch humanist Erasmus, publishing a 1990 book comparing his work to Paul’s letters to the Romans.

Mara and Francis became acquainted with one another, and at one point shortly before her death the pope paid a private and unannounced visit to her house. When asked by another friend about the difficulties of entertaining a pope, she brushed it off, saying it was “a duty of justice … to thank him for the good he has done, and is doing, for the Church.”

Speaking at the Augustine Institute in February, Francis made mention of Mara in an address to students and faculty.

“Professor Maria Grazia Mara comes to mind, who taught many things and who, at 95, is still publishing and teaching catechism to children,” Francis said. “Sages, when they get to that age, have a grand simplicity that does so much good. Thanks to all the elderly, and to the professors who are retired.”

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