Father John Ubel greets Pope Francis during his trip to Rome.
By Father John Ubel
My brief trip to Rome began with a plethora of questions from an inquisitive Jewish woman sitting next to me on the flight from Minneapolis. Among them: “What do you mean by mercy?” and “But does forgiveness actually accomplish anything?”
While a great discussion starter, on this evening flight to Amsterdam, I was most interested in sleeping. But when the pilot kept giving us Super Bowl updates every 20 minutes just as I began to doze, I accepted reality! But, her pointed questions left me pondering some very basic concepts, and how I ought to be able to explain mercy in terms understandable even to those who do not share my faith.
After a two-hour layover at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, I arrived in Rome on Monday afternoon (Feb. 8) only to discover that my phone’s battery had inexplicably gone completely dead, even though turned off. My rusty Italian was enough for me to comprehend that it was indeed an expensive fix and I’d be better off seeing if it was under warranty back home.
On to Plan B. I said a quick prayer they had Wi-Fi at the Domus Paulus VI. This is the clerical residence for priests working in the Vatican near the Piazza Navona that also welcomes occasional priest guests. Pope Francis stayed there in the days leading to the conclave that elected him, and you may recall the photo of him returning to pay his bill!
Thankfully they had Wi-Fi, because in typical “Fr. Frugal” fashion, I was too cheap to purchase a data plan for my iPad. My simple but comfortable room looked right over a bus stop (if elected to the Italian parliament, I’d immediately sponsor legislation to outlaw scooter horns and pigeons), but the priests and staff were most gracious and welcoming of their American interloper.
When I mentioned at table that I was from Minnesota, I was met with deadpan stares. I clarified that it was six hours from Chicago — still nothing. Finally I said that I lived near Canada! I began writing this travelogue while enjoying my third (alright, perhaps my fourth) cup of cappuccino on Tuesday morning. I could get used to this! I had time to pray and go to confession, as well as purchase a few Holy Year related gifts. While visiting the tomb of St. Monica in the Church of St. Augustine, I prayed for my mother and all mothers, as they labor tirelessly to pass the faith along to their children.
The Holy Year theme “Merciful like the Father” and the Jubilee Logo are omnipresent, as are the pilgrims here to venerate the mortal remains of St. Padre Pio, brought here from San Giovanni Rotondo in Puglia. The logo was emblazoned on a beautiful commemorative violet stole given to each priest, which I plan to wear in the confessional. St. Pio stands as a model confessor, humble and simple, and he reminds me that we must never tire of offering forgiveness. I have a special devotion to Padre Pio since my days at St. Agnes, when I prayed for his intercession at a critical time in that school’s history in 2007. He came through then, and continues to inspire.
On Tuesday afternoon, the universality of the Church was especially evident as nearly 700 priests designated as Missionaries of Mercy gathered at Castel Sant’Angelo for a solemn procession toward St. Peter’s Basilica to enter through the Holy Door. It was a prayerful walk as we recited designated prayers, gathering by language groups. The procession took us inside the Basilica, all around and back out again. We continued around the perimeter of the outside of the Basilica leading us to the Apostolic Palace and the Sala Regia (Regal Room). Completed in 1573 A.D., it is adjacent to the Sistine Chapel and was originally used to receive foreign princes and ambassadors. But the purpose of this meeting was quite different.
Without really trying, I wound up in the eighth row, as the room quickly filled up. Archbishop Rino Fisichella prepped us for the audience. Among other things, he encouraged a total fast from all food on Ash Wednesday and reminded us to silence all cellphones. His American assistant, my friend Father Geno Sylva from the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, then stepped to the microphone and asked those without headsets (for the purpose of providing a simultaneous translation for non-Italian speakers) to move to an overflow room just off to the side because the headset reception only worked in the main Sala. No, please don’t ask me to move! Since I had chosen not to take a headset, I was banished, and would watch the address on a monitor.
But as it turns out, the Holy Father walked right past me on his way to and from the audience, and on his way out I shook hands with him and greeted him. God provides — the last shall be first! During his address, the Holy Father exhorted us to be patient and kind confessors — and not to ask too many questions! He reminded us that the sacrament of penance is an encounter with our loving and merciful Father and that sometimes our words get in the way. It was sage advice and I plan on heeding it carefully. After the meeting, we were treated to a delicious dinner in the atrium of the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall. It was after all, Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday), so I enjoyed it as well as meeting priests from various parts of the World, truly a highlight for me.
On Ash Wednesday, I had the rare luxury of not needing to set my alarm. The fatigue of travel and the excitement from Tuesday’s activities coalesced, enabling me to sleep in until nearly 6 a.m.! I made my way down to the refectory for a cup of coffee at 6:45, but it was still brewing. I said my morning prayers and patiently waited. Roman coffee is always worth the wait, and I took the time to finish writing a Cathedral bulletin column before emailing it back home. Later in the morning I visited with David Kirsh, a lifetime Cathedral parishioner and St. John Vianney College Seminary student, spending the semester in Rome through the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program.
Desiring to keep the rest of Ash Wednesday in a spirit of preparation, I neither shopped nor did any sight seeing. Instead, I spent some quiet time in prayer and reading at the Augustinianum, a Pontifical University right next St. Peter’s Square, specializing in Patristic studies. And where, I might add, I took the toughest oral exam I have ever had in my life 10 years ago — it still stings!
It was peaceful and prayerful, and I eventually made my way to St. Peter’s, thirty minutes ahead of our appointed time. But I was still far from first in line. The piazza was packed and people were trying to acquire tickets for Mass. One lady even asked if I would give up my ticket so she could attend with her toddler.
I politely declined, noting that the gold tickets were for concelebrating priests only. She was not impressed! We priests spent the next 90 minutes waiting patiently, as this is just part of the deal in the Eternal City. Those cobblestones really do a number on one’s back — a chiropractor could make a fortune in Rome! But it provided ample opportunity to visit with the other priests, whether Italian or English speakers, and I found this quite enjoyable.
A prayerful, yet jubilant spirit was kept throughout. While waiting I met Father Joseph Reilly from Newark, New Jersey, and learned that he was the rector of their Cathedral. I replied, “Father, you and I have at least two things in common — we’re both rectors and we are currently sharing an Archbishop!”
We made our way to the bronze steps where we waited for Mass to begin. There, final instructions soon followed in five languages (no, I did not need to be reminded to refrain from taking pictures during Mass!) and the long procession began. While I ended up toward the back of the reserved section for priests, it mattered little because we were all there together concelebrating with the Holy Father.
The Sistine Choir, composed of men and boys from the Basilica, provided the beautiful music. Readings, petitions and the gift bearers were provided by men, women and children from different countries, and the distribution of ashes began with Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the Archpriest of the Basilica, imposing ashes upon the crown of the head of Pope Francis. In Rome, the ashes are not placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross, but rather sprinkled on the crown of your head, recalling the Book of Nehemiah 9:1 in which the “Israelites gathered together while fasting and while wearing sackcloth, their heads covered with dust.”
The highlight for me was the commissioning ceremony at the end of Mass. The prayer asked the Lord to “watch over these your servants, who we send forth as messengers of Mercy, liberation and of peace. Guide their steps with Your right hand and sustain them with the power of Your grace, so that they do not come under the weight of apostolic endeavors. May the voice of Christ resound in their words, and in their gestures the heart of Christ.”
It was so clear that the human aspect of the encounter is central for Pope Francis, and even his commissioning prayer was a sober reminder of the role that we are called to play. I would not be surprised if he wrote the prayer himself. I will not soon forget this powerful exhortation and the brief, but extremely rewarding, time I spent in Rome. And, I felt uplifted by the prayers of so many from home and kept the good people of the archdiocese close in my prayers.
Father Ubel is rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. He was commissioned to be a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday in Rome.