Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Francesco: Supreme Pontiff or Bishop of Rome?

Today's photos:


The coat of arms of Papa Francesco.


The coat of arms of Benedict XVI.


The coat of arms of John Paul II.


Salus Populi Romani: Francesco chose to pray in front of this twelfth-century image of the Madonna and Bambino in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the first full day after his election.


Francesco: Supreme Pontiff or Bishop of Rome?


Of the dozens of topics relating to the new pope which I could write about, I have chosen one which is especially dear to the Romans. Although I am not Roman, I have been living in this city for almost thirteen years, and as such, I have been impressed by the new pope's continuous reference to himself as Bishop of Rome rather than as Supreme Pontiff. Some of these references you may not have seen in the news reports wherever you happen to be, but they are often pointed out by the local media in Rome, so I wanted to bring some of them to your attention. Papa Francesco (Excuse my use of the Italian, but it just sounds better to me!) understands that he was not really elected pope; he was elected Bishop of Rome, a fact which automatically makes him also the head of the universal Church (Supreme Pontiff). It comes with the territory, so to speak.


From the balcony


You must understand that although he is, in all respects, the Bishop of Rome, the pope has a vicar, one who handles the day-to-day administration of the diocese, the bishop's stand-in, you might say. Immediately after his election Francesco told his vicar, Cardinal Vallini, "You are my vicar and I want you with me on the balcony". No other pope has ever done this, and the cardinal was both honored and somewhat shocked by the request. Sure enough, during his brief talk from the Loggia, Papa Francesco mentioned his cardinal vicar by name, even pointing him out to the crowd. It shows that he takes very seriously his role as Bishop of Rome. I think as time goes on we will see him  visiting many of the parishes in his diocese, a custom begun by John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI.


The first visit


Among the things which the pope said that evening from the Loggia was that the following day he intended to visit the Madonna to put himself and his diocese under her protection. But which church of the Madonna would he visit? There are over 100 of them just in the city of Rome! For a fleeting moment I thought he might come to my parish church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, but the pope had another church in mind: the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and for a particular reason. This basilica has a special twelfth-century painting of the Virgin Mary in the Cappella Borghese, the chapel just to the left of the main altar; this was to be the destination of the new pope's first visit to a church of his diocese on the very first full day of his ministry.


A curiosity


But what makes this painting of the Madonna so special to the Romans, besides its age? The official name of it is Madonna della neve, Madonna of the snow, but the Romans long ago assigned a more significant name to it: Salus Populi Romani, Safty of the Roman people, because of the numerous miracles said to have benefited the Roman people through the intercession of the Virgin represented in this  particular painting. This was the image of the Virgin Mary before which Papa Francesco, the new Bishop of Rome, wanted to pray. And who accompanied the bishop on his visit to the basilica? His vicar, of course, Cardinal Vallini.


(If you would like to know a little more about this magnificent basilica, the first one to be visited by the new pope, check out Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 20, Santa Maria Maggiore).


Beginning of pontificate


In the past, even recent past, the terms used to describe the ceremony to mark the beginning of the pontificate of a new pope ranged from "crowning" to "inauguration" to "enthronement", and always "of the Supreme Pontiff". Francesco would have none of it! The ceremony of beginning pontificate now makes reference to his role as Bishop of Rome: In Italian, Inizio del Ministero Petrino del Vescovo di Roma (Beginning of the Ministry of Peter by the Bishop of Rome).


Coat of Arms


Here is yet another emphasis on the pope's role, first and foremost, as Bishop of Rome. He is using the same coat of arms as he used as the bishop of his diocese of Buenos Aires, with one exception. He has added to the top of the coat of arms the crossed keys (one gold and one silver), age-old symbol of the papacy. But even here he wants to stress the role of the pope as bishop. He did this by placing between the two keys a bishop's miter instead of the traditional tiara (papal crown once worn by popes) which was used for centuries on papal coats of arms. I should mention that the substitution of the tiara with the miter was also done by Francesco's predecessor, Benedict XVI. In the first three photos above, compare the coats of arms of the last three popes: Francesco, Benedict and John Paul. You will see that they all have the crossed keys, but only Benedict and Francesco have the bishop's miter.


A curiosity


Why are the keys used to represent the papacy, and why is one gold and the other silver? The keys refer to the famous statement of Christ made to St. Peter: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. Since Peter is considered the first pope, the keys have always been used as the symbol of that office. The gold of one key represents the spiritual side of the papacy while the silver represents his temporal power as the Sovereign of Vatican State. Gold is more precious than silver!


While we are on the subject of the papal coat of arms, here is a brief explanation of the symbols on that of Papa Francesco. In the middle of a blue background, you see a radiant, golden sun, on which are the letters IHS which stand for the Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, the savior of men). Remember that the pope is a Jesuit priest, and this is the motto of the Jesuit order; you will see it on and in just about every Jesuit church In the world. Just above the H of the IHS you see a cross, while below those letters are three nails, representing the nails which fastened Jesus to the cross (one on each hand and one on his crossed feet). Near the bottom of the shield is a star, on the left, which is often used to represent the Virgin Mary. Opposite it, on the right, is what looks like a cluster of grapes. This has been explained as a spikenard, a Middle Eastern aromatic plant often associated with St. Joseph (Not by chance was the opening mass of Francesco's ministry celebrated on the feast day of St. Joseph!). And, of course, at the top of the shield are the crossed keys and the bishop's miter.


More difficult to explain is the Latin motto which appears beneath the shield: miserando atque eligendo, by being merciful and by choosing [him]. The explanation out of the Vatican is that this phrase has a special meaning to Jorge Bergoglio and it refers to the vocation (calling) of St. Matthew to become an apostle. The seventeen-year old Jorge Bergoglio, after going to confession on the feast day of St. Matthew the apostle in 1953, felt himself called to the priesthood. And several times in his early public speeches and sermons, the pope has expressed the importance of being merciful.


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