ASSISI, Italy – In his first trip outside Rome since the coronavirus pandemic began, Pope Francis celebrated Mass Saturday at the tomb of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and signed his new encyclical on human fraternity.
After pulling up to the Basilica of St. Francis just after 3:00 p.m. local time, the pope descended into the crypt where his namesake is buried, where he celebrated a private Mass with around 20 people present, mostly religious sisters or friars, sitting one to a pew.
He did not deliver a homily but sat in silence after the day’s Gospel reading was pronounced, which is not the first time Francis has opted to stay quiet on an important occasion.
During his visit to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau as part of his July 2016 visit to Poland for World Youth Day, for instance, Francis remained mute, saying later his silence “was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been.”
At the close of Mass Saturday, the pope thanked three officials from the Secretariat of State who assisted in the translations of the encyclical, one of whom brought the text to the altar for the pope to sign, for their work.
Speaking to Crux, Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, who oversees the Diocese of Assisi, said it was “a privilege for us and for our church here” to welcome Pope Francis to Assisi for the signing of his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which will be published tomorrow, Oct. 4, on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
For Sorrentino, to have the papal document signed in the city of St. Francis is “something natural. This is an encyclical on fraternity, and we all know this concept was incredibly important for St. Francis.”
“Francis made this critical choice to live only for God, for Jesus, and for the brothers, and that choice is the foundation for today’s encyclical,” he said. “Pope Francis is coming here because St. Francis is a witness to fraternity, in the Gospel sense.”
Though his brief, half-day outing was Pope Francis’s fourth visit to Assisi since his election in 2013, it consisted of a slew of “firsts.”
Not only was it the pope’s first trip outside of Rome since COVID-19 first broke out in Italy, but it marked the first time a papal Mass has been celebrated in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, and it was also the first time an encyclical had been signed outside of Rome.
The encyclical itself is Francis’s first major teaching document since COVID-19, and the pope’s Oct. 3 Mass was also the first known papal liturgy to be celebrated in Assisi without faithful present, apart from a handful of friars and religious.
Francis’s trip fell on the eve not only of the feast day for his namesake, and the coinciding release of Fratelli Tutti, but his visit precedes that of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who will travel to Assisi Oct. 4 along with other government officials to celebrate the feast of St. Francis, Patron of Italy.
Conte will be joined by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, Family Minister Elena Bonetti, and other government officials for the occasion, which will be marked by Mass, the lighting of a special votive candle in honor of St. Francis, and fighter jets streaming the colors of the Italian flag through the sky.
The rite has been celebrated annually since Oct. 4, 1939, when Pope Pius XII declared Francis of Assisi the Patron of Italy.
Sunday’s events will close around 5:00 p.m. after the recitation of Vespers, and a blessing for Italy and the whole world with the words of a blessing written by St. Francis in 1224 for a fellow friar.
Sorrentino confirmed that this is also the first time a pope has come to Assisi one day and the prime minister the next.
Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has embraced and celebrated St. Francis of Assisi as a model of social justice, particularly when it comes to the topics of poverty, peace and fraternity.
Speaking to some 5,000 journalists just days after his election to the papacy in 2013, Francis said he first thought of naming himself after the great 13th century saint once it became obvious he had been elected and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of Sao Paolo, hugged him and told him, “Don’t forget the poor.”
“Those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi…For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the pope said, calling St. Francis, “the poor man who wanted a poor church. How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Since then, the fight against poverty and inequality, the pursuit of peace by renewing bonds of brotherhood, and care of the environment have all become staples in Francis’s papacy.
The title of Francis’s new encyclical comes from number six of the Admonitions of St. Francis, which reads: “Let us all, brothers, look to the Good Shepherd who suffered the passion of the Cross to save his sheep.”
“The sheep of the Lord followed him in tribulation and persecution, in insult and hunger, in infirmity and temptation, and in everything else and they have received everlasting life from the Lord because of these things,” the passage continues. “Therefore, it is a great shame for us, servants of God, that while the saints (actually) did such things, we wish to receive glory and honor by [merely] recounting their deeds.”
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