In his first outing from the Vatican, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major to pray before the image of the patroness of Rome.
The cardinal archpriest of the shrine, Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, a native of Spain, accompanied the Holy Father during the visit.
Incidentally, Cardinal Abril y Castelló was apostolic nuncio in Argentina from 2000 to 2003, arriving some two years after then-Archbishop Bergoglio took over the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
ZENIT spoke with Cardinal Abril y Castelló about the Pope’s first outing.
ZENIT: How did the idea arise of Pope Francis’ visit to Saint Mary Major?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Yesterday afternoon he told me he wanted to visit Saint Mary Major. I told him I was delighted, of course, and that I would accompany him if he so wished. He answered, “Yes, of course.”
So we accompanied him. Cardinal Agostino Vallini also came. There was no one was in the Basilica for security reasons. It was a lovely moment of prayer to the Virgin, after offering her the bouquet of flowers. He stayed a while praying in silence. Then we all sang the Salve Regina.
Yesterday he said to me specifically, I want to go to pray to the Virgin to entrust my whole pontificate to her, so that she will bless it and help me.
ZENIT: And then?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: I showed him the restored part of the opposite chapel, called Sistine, which is not yet totally open to the public and is in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major which, as we all know, is where Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass. The Pope was very pleased with the way the chapel looked. Then he greeted his closest collaborators.
ZENIT: From here he went to via “Della Scrofa”?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Then he went to collect all his belongings at the residence on “via della Scrofa.” He collected them and then, at a given moment, he went to pay. I said to him: Holy Father, leave it, we will attend to this later. And he said: no, no, no. I’ll pay. And then he specified: if I have said no it’s because I want to make it clear that the Pope doesn’t take any advantage at all of the things of the Church. It was a magnificent example which defines what he is.
ZENIT: Cardinal Bergoglio had a return ticket [to Argentina]. Does this moment at the hotel confirm that he was thinking of returning to Buenos Aires after the Conclave?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Of course, he didn’t pay beforehand because he thought: the day I leave I’ll pay everything together. And this defines him a lot.
ZENIT: The name Francis is already a program.
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: About the name, initially, as we couldn’t hear well, we thought that it was either Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Francis Xavier. I asked him during the dinner and he told me very clearly that it was in honor and homage to Saint Francis of Assisi.
ZENIT: Were the cardinals pleased?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Yes, yes, I think so. He was received with great joy because we think he can do
ZENIT: Will it be important for Latin America?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: We must take that fact into account; almost half the Church lives there. So, given that there is a Pope from there, I think it will make them feel he is a Pope more of their own. And we hope that this will make possible a more effective and dynamic evangelization, which can be followed by pastors and faithful.
ZENIT: It was evident that the Pope was not elected by the journalists but by the Holy Spirit!
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Thank God, I must say, because they give such interpretations on so many occasions. I said to the journalists: these are your issues, resolve them among yourselves.
ZENIT: Could there have been a better choice?
Cardinal Abril y Castelló: Theoretically, of course, one can hypothesize as much as one likes, but I think this is a magnificent, magnificent option. A better choice at this moment, I believe, would be difficult to come by. It’s the Holy Spirit who has given his inspiration. The Holy Father looks very serene, very calm, I think he’s going to do a great job. Let’s hope and pray for him.[Translation by ZENIT]