Today was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and Pope Francis made a surprise visit to Rome’s Spanish Steps to venerate an outdoor statue of the Blessed Mother. NCR’s Christopher White reports:

For two years running, the Vatican has canceled Pope Francis’ public ceremony in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in order to avoid crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic. And for two years in a row, Francis has still shown up.

On Dec. 8, Francis arrived just before 6:15 a.m. in Rome’s historical center, making the two-and-half-mile drive from the Vatican to the Column of the Immaculate Conception near the city’s iconic Spanish Steps.

“While it was night around, the pope laid a basket of white roses at the base of the column on top of which stands the statue of Our Lady and paused in prayer,” said a statement from the Holy See Press Office.

The statement said that Francis asked “for the miracle of healing, for the many sick; of healing, for the peoples who suffer severely from wars and the climate crisis; and of conversion, that she might melt the stony heart of those who build walls to remove from themselves the pain of others.”

Next, he went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and prayed before the icon of Maria Salus Populi Romani. You can read the full report here.

Pope Francis also delivered a special Angelus message for the feast day, and spoke about her sinlessness, her humanity, and her humility, He reminded us that God works in the ordinary, in our homes, and in our everyday lives:

The angel calls her “full of grace”. If she is full of grace, it means the Madonna is void of evil: she is without sin, Immaculate. Now, at the angel’s greeting, Mary – the text says – is “greatly troubled” (Lk 1:29). She is not only surprised, but troubled. To receive grand greetings, honours and compliments sometimes brings the risk of provoking pride and presumption. Let us recall that Jesus is not gentle with those who go in search of greetings in the squares, adulation, visibility (cf. Lk 20:46). Mary, instead, does not exalt herself, but is troubled; rather than feeling pleased, she feels amazement. The angel’s greeting seemed too grand for her. Why? Because she feels her littleness within, and that littleness, that humility attracts God’s eyes.

Within the walls of the house of Nazareth, we thus see a marvellous characteristic of Mary’s heart. How is Mary’s heart? Having received the highest of compliments, she is troubled she because she hears addressed to her what she has not attributed to herself. In fact, Mary does not credit prerogatives to herself, she does not hold claim to anything, she accounts nothing to her own merit. She is not self-satisfied, she does not exalt herself. For in her humility, she knows she receives everything from God. Therefore, free from herself, she is completely directed toward God and others. Mary Immaculate does not look on herself. This is true humility: not looking on oneself, but looking toward God and others.

Let us remember that this perfection of Mary, the full of grace, is declared by the angel within the walls of her house – not in Nazareth’s main square, but there, in hiding, in the greatest humility. In that little house of Nazareth beat the greatest heart that any creature has ever had. Dear brothers and sisters, this is extraordinary news for us! Because the Lord is telling us that to work marvellous deeds, he has no need of grand means and our lofty abilities, but our humility, eyes open to Him, and also open to others. With this annunciation, within the poor walls of a small house, God changed history. Even today, he wants to do great things with us in our daily lives: in our families, at work, in everyday environments. God’s grace loves to operate there more than in great historical events. But, I ask myself, do we believe this? Or rather do we think that holiness is a utopia, something for insiders, a pious illusion incompatible with ordinary life?

He also reminded us that today ended the year of St. Joseph. In his general audience last week, he closed with another prayer to St. Joseph, which reflects on his great love for Mary, even with the unforeseen challenges he faced:

Saint Joseph,
you who loved Mary with freedom,
and chose to renounce your fantasies to give way to reality,
help each of us to allow ourselves to be surprised by God
and to accept life not as something unforeseen from which to defend ourselves,
but as a mystery that hides the secret of true joy.
Obtain joy and radicality for all engaged Christians,
while always being aware
that only mercy and forgiveness make love possible. Amen.

This prayer contains references from earlier in the address, about how St. Joseph’s love for Mary from the beginning was with “his eyes open,” and with none of the infatuation that often defines the early part of the marriage. It is in this context that Pope Francis refers to as “the worst, the most demonic passage, in the Gospel.” This is a reference to John 8:41 (“‘You do what your father did.’ They said to him, ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.'” RSVCE), in which the scribes and the Pharisees take a jab at Jesus’ parentage, suggesting his mother was a prostitute:

To love is not the pretension that the other person, or life, should correspond to our imagination. Rather, it means to choose in full freedom to take responsibility for one’s life as it comes. This is why Joseph gives us an important lesson. He chooses Mary with “his eyes open”. We can say “with all the risks”. Think about this: in the Gospel of John, a reproof the doctors of the law make to Jesus is: “we are not children from that”, referring to prostitution. They knew how Mary had remained pregnant and they wanted to throw dirt on Jesus’ mamma. For me, this is the worst, the most demonic passage, in the Gospel. And Joseph’s risk gives us this lesson: to take life as it comes. Has God intervened there? I accept it. And Joseph does what the angel of the Lord had ordered:“He took his wife, but knew her not” – without living together she is expecting a son – “until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:24-25).

To love Mary is to love her Son. “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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