By Msgr. Francis D. Kelly
Despite the tease of a few raindrops at the start and a chilly December wind, about 70,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, for the Mass and historic opening of the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. The attendees faced a new hurdle made necessary by the increased threat of terror in Europe; each had to go through a metal detector to get into the Square.
Nonetheless, by the time of the Mass the great Square was comfortably filled as the procession of white-robed concelebrants filed onto the great outdoor sanctuary before the huge stone pillars of the facade of St. Peter’s.
The concelebrants included hundreds of bishops and 40 cardinals. Two United States bishops were among them: Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Bishop Paul D. Sirba of Duluth, Minnesota. Personally, I was pleased after Mass to have a cordial reunion with Bishop Burbidge – we had both served as seminary rectors at the same time and he now boasts of having 28 seminarians in his diocese in the heart of the Bible Belt.
The Mass of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception unfolded beautifully – it was enhanced by the singing during the Offertory of the familiar “Immaculate Mary – Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” which was probably sung in a lot of our parishes that day, but, generally, popular hymns are not used at papal ceremonies.
Pope Francis’ homily was strong and striking. He said that his purpose in organizing the Holy Year was to emphasize “the priority of grace.” From his pastoral experience he feels many Catholics simply have a warped idea of Christianity: Viewing God as some kind of angry “super cop” always on the watch for our falls. And thinking that if we struggle enough we may manage to please him and win salvation. Instead, he insisted, God is the Being of Supreme Love and Mercy – it is he who is seeking us out at all times and forgiving us when we fall. In our relationship with God, he said, “We must abandon every kind of fear….His justice is always in the light of his mercy.”
In the homily the Pope made an interesting comparison. This day was also the 50th Anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. The Pope said the Council itself was “a door” by which the Church, after many centuries of being closed in on itself in a defensive posture, opened itself to the modern world and its needs and questions. He suggested that some of that “missionary thrust” seemed to have waned in the Church and he hopes the Holy Year will reignite the spark of an outward, open, welcoming spirit in the Church.
At the end of the Mass all attention turned to the Holy Door which is located in the Atrium of the Basilica.
I was privileged to be among those invited to stand in the Atrium. To the surprise of all, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI appeared in a simple white overcoat and was embraced by Pope Francis. Pope Francis then led the special prayer for the opening of the Door and, with both hands and with some effort, it seemed, pushed the two doors open. He entered and stood on the threshold his head bowed in silent prayer for some time and then went into the Basilica. Pope Benedict, seeming quite frail went up the three steps with the assistance of his Secretary, Bishop Georg Ganswein, and thus, was the second person to enter the Holy Door.
Then followed the other prelates who were invited – as we entered the door kissing the cross on its lintel – very conscious that we were among the first of literally millions who will cross that threshold in the year ahead. We were also very conscious of the beautiful reality it symbolized – the merciful embrace of Christ the Savior which is available to us at every moment of our journey to him!
We assembled then at Peter’s Tomb for the final prayers and concluded by singing the “Salve Regina” to Mary on her feast day.
It is wonderful to know that on Sunday, Dec. 13, Bishop McManus will conduct a similar ceremony at St. Paul Cathedral in Worcester and all the blessings and graces that I have described are available to the faithful of our Diocese of Worcester.
On the evening of Dec. 8 we were back in the Basilica again for a special service conducted by our Archpriest, Cardinal Angelo Comastri. We processed through the Basilica singing the Litany of the Saints and asking the intercession of each of them – we marched to the Atrium and again entered the Holy Door. Then we processed to the High Altar for the singing of Second Vespers of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
This priest of Worcester that evening felt especially graced to have entered the Holy Door twice on the first day of the Jubilee! May the year ahead be one of rich spiritual joy and grace for all Catholics!
– Msgr. Kelly, a priest of the Diocese of Worcester, is a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica.