From the early hours, pilgrims began descending on Castel Gandolfo, eager to join Pope Francis celebrate his first Feast of the Assumption Mass as Roman Pontiff.
His visit was made all the more special as he had earlier in the year decided to break with tradition to spend a “working vacation” in the Vatican, away from the papal summer residence. Indeed, as Pope, this was only the third time he had visited the apostolic palace in the Albano hills just outside Rome, and the first Mass he had celebrated there.
But the prolonged absence of a pope residing at Castel Gandolfo was somewhat compensated by another innovation: celebration of the Mass not in the courtyard of the summer residence, as previous popes have done, but in Piazzale della Liberta – the town’s small, main square – so the maximum number of pilgrims could take part. An elevated altar was erected in front of the main gate of the palace, allowing the many attending to gain some glimpse of the new Pope.
The local authorities estimated that around 10,500 pilgrims filed into the small square and adjoining street, including a large number of young Argentinians, Mexicans, and a group from Guinea. The Holy Father’s compatriots were naturally the most jubilant and vocal, filling the small space with joyful folk songs in anticipation of his arrival.
“Pope Francis is the best – he is Argentinian!”, said Sol, a girl from Buenos Aires. “He is very humble – austere I would say – and friendly. I think it is what the Church needs.”
The Holy Father travelled the 21 miles or so by car instead of the usual helicopter in order to cut costs. He made a short visit to a local Clarissan monastery on arrival before appearing soon after 10.30 to a roar and applause from the crowd.
The charged atmosphere was also somewhat tense, exacerbated by the confined space and the hot August sun. At least two people fainted and were carried off in stretchers. Meanwhile, one couple near me at the front, became angry at being moved on by stewards and started complaining so loudly that it forced Pope Francis and cardinals at the altar to pause and give them icy stares until they quietened down.
But these incidents couldn’t hold back the crowd from warmly embracing the Pope.
In his homily, the Holy Father explained how the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven prompts us to focus on three key words: struggle, resurrection and hope.
The Church and Our Lady never leave us in our struggles, he said: the Church is “glorious and triumphant” but must continually struggle against evil. But just as the Church never leaves us in the struggle, neither does Mary.
The Pope then adlibbed, asking those present: “Do you pray the Rosary every day?”, to which the crowd shouted “Yes!”. “But I’m not sure you do,” Francis replied, smiling. “Really?” The people laughed, but Francis stressed that the Rosary is important in the “battle against the evil one and his accomplices.”
He then explained how Mary’s humanity is “attracted” by the Son and his own passage from death to life, and that she, too, experienced the martyrdom of the Cross. “Christ is the first fruits from the dead and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of ‘those who are in Christ,’” he said. She is, he added, “our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister…who has arrived in heaven.”
Having shared how Mary helps us in our struggles and leads us to Christ’s resurrection, he underlined the importance of “hope” by reflecting on the Magnificat. It is a “song of hope”, the “song of the People of God walking through history,” he said. The Magnificat, he added, “is particularly strong in places where the Body of Christ is suffering the Passion.” Looking up from his prepared remarks, he said: “For us Christians, wherever the Cross is, there is hope, always. If there is no hope, we are not Christian.”
That is why, he said, he likes to warn the faithful not to be “robbed of hope, because this strength is a grace, a gift from God which carries us forward with our eyes fixed on heaven.” And Mary, he said, “is always there, near those communities, our brothers and sisters, she accompanies them, suffers with them, and sings the Magnificat of hope with them.”
He closed by calling on all the faithful to “unite” themselves to this song of “patience and victory, of struggle and joy.” The Magnificat, he said, “unites the triumphant Church with the pilgrim one, earth with heaven, and that joins our lives to the eternity towards which we journey.”
Before praying the Angelus, Pope Francis called for prayers for “peace, dialogue and reconciliation” after the “painful news” in Egypt where more than 400 people have been killed during unrest there in recent days. He said he wished to assure “all victims, their families, the wounded and those who suffer” of his prayers.
He also recalled the 25th anniversary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Mulieris dignitatem, on the dignity and vocation of women. “This document,” he said, “is full of ideas that deserve to be taken up and developed. At the base of it all is the figure of Mary.” And he called on the faithful to recall the prayer at the end of the document so that “by meditating on the biblical mystery of women, condensed in Mary, all women may find themselves and the fullness of their vocation.”
The pilgrims present were enthused and energised by Pope Francis’ presence. Victoria from Buenos Aires said she appreciated how he “tries to be like one of us” and is “changing a lot of things.”
“As an Argentinian, I feel very close to him,” she said. “I have never felt so close to a pope. I think he will be very effective in drawing people to the Church.”
Another Buenos Aires native, Lucilla, said the Pope is no different to how he was as archbishop. “He fights for his convictions and his principles are the same,” she said. “He is not afraid to denounce what is wrong and he’s very ascetic, austere.”
Tattiana from Romania said she thought Francis was “outstanding” and similarly admired his simplicity and “rapport with people,” while Gloria from Catania, Sicily, said: “I love him, I’m fascinated by him,” and added that she was curious about how he will reform the Curia.
In the run up to the Assumption Mass, Italian media had been reporting on disgruntlement among residents of Castel Gandolfo whose businesses are suffering due to the absence of a pope at the apostolic palace.
As neither Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI nor Pope Francis are staying in the salubrious air of the papal summer residence this year, Italian news agency ANSA reported that many of Castel Gandolfo’s 9,000 residents feel “orphaned”. One has to go back to 1978 and the “year of the three popes” to find such a lengthy period of vacancy. “The atmosphere in the city is very sad,” the news agency reported August 12th.
Andea Di Bernadini, owner of a gift shop on the piazza, said traders were “very disappointed” and that business “is collapsing.” Another gift shop owner, Patrizia Gasperini, told ANSA that when she heard the Pope wasn’t staying this year, she thought it was a “joke.” “I understand the reasons, but for us it’s very difficult,” she said. “The summer was for us the period that helps us through the winter,” she said. “Now it’s no longer the case, we have to rethink everything a little.”
But in comments to ZENIT, traders were more upbeat. “We have a high regard for Pope Francis,” said Diana, owner of an art shop. “He has chosen not to take a vacation, to keep working and maybe that is a good thing.”
“People here like the Pope,” she said. “He is very direct. We want him here and hopefully he’ll come next year!”
Meanwhile, Carla, owner of a souvenir shop, said although the absence of a pope has caused some hardship, she liked his “austere approach to things”. But she similarly hopes – and is confident – he’ll be back next year.
Castel Gandolfo’s mayor, Milvia Monachesi, said the town needs to find a new economic model, one not based solely on religious tourism. She argued the town in itself has a lot to offer, including a “superb location” close to Rome, and overlooking a beautiful lake. Some have proposed opening up the gardens of the apostolic palace to visitors as a way of attracting more tourists.
Monachesi, however, was confident this was just a small bump in the road, and took comfort in the fact that Pope John XXIII also didn’t visit the town during the early years of his pontificate. And she noted that celebrating Mass in the square was an unexpected good sign. “I’m sure the Pope will come to Castel Gandolfo in the coming years,” she said.
Like many of the town’s residents, she is heeding the Pope’s instruction to resist being “robbed of hope.”