Just as Pope Francis promised when Wednesday he appeared for the first time on the central balcony of St. Peter’s, the Holy Father went today to ask Our Lady’s protection on the Church.
At 8:05 this morning, leaving the Vatican for the first time as Pontiff, the newly elected Pope took one of the Gendarmerie’s simple service cars to the papal basilica of St. Mary Major, the oldest and largest church dedicated to the Virgin in Rome, Vatican Information Service reported.
Francis entered through one of the basilica’s side doors and went to the venerated icon of Our Lady “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress of the Roman People) accompanied by, among others, Cardinal Santos Abril y Castello, archpriest of the basilica and Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome.
The Holy Father, after leaving the Virgin a bouquet of flowers on the altar, prayed silently for about 10 minutes before the main altar that is directly above the crypt containing relics of the crib or manger of the Nativity of Jesus.
Francis also visited the basilica’s Sistine Chapel, which is where St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, celebrated his first Mass after being ordained a priest. Ignatius waited several months, until Christmas Eve 1538, to say his first Mass.
“It is a very significant place in Jesuit spirituality,” confirmed the Vatican spokesman, who is also a Jesuit, Father Federico Lombardi.
Finally, the new Roman Pontiff also stopped to pray before the tomb of St. Pius V, which is also in that chapel.
Pope Francis also greeted the basilica’s chapter of canons, confessors, and priests as well as all the personnel that work there and the faithful and journalists that he met along the way.
The Holy Father left as he had arrived, with a minimal escort and entourage. He was accompanied by Archbishop Georg Ganswein and Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, respectively prefect and regent of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household.
Along the way, however, he surprised everyone by first sending an affectionate greeting to children from a nearby school and then by asking his driver to stop by the Domus Internationalis “Paulus VI” near Piazza Navona where he had stayed before entering the Conclave. The Pope greeted those working there, gathered his belongings, and paid his bill.