Editor’s Note: Victor Gaetan is exploring issues facing Catholic communities in Turkey, the Balkans, Ukraine, Transylvania, and Hungary over the next six weeks. He started in Rome, fortuitously on the Feast of Corpus Christi, where this guest blog begins:


Last Thursday morning in Rome, as I approached a cheerful carabiniere setting up barricades outside the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a group of tourists from northern Italy got to him first, asking what time Papa Francesco would arrive in the square for the Corpus Christi benediction.

The benediction is the end-point of a candlelit procession behind the Blessed Sacrament traditionally led by the pope on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord, celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

“He should be here between 8:00 and 9:00 pm. He didn’t call me this morning to tell me,” chortled the chubby traffic cop in a blue short-sleeved uniform.

“But he might call you,” responded a boisterous woman. “Be ready for his call any day!”

Everyone laughed, sharing the joy that is Francis.

Delight with the Holy Father among local people is poignant. He’s a fixture on local news and a topic of daily conversation — which is normal, because he’s the Bishop of Rome.

Since the first moments of his pontificate, Pope Francis emphasized this local role. From the loggia of St Peter’s March 13, 2013 he said: “And now let us begin this journey, the bishop and the people, this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust.”

As Pope Francis has built devotion among his Roman flock, through profound pastoral gestures and homespun language, he has emerged as a hometown hero more than his two predecessors, who were, first and foremost, global leaders.

The pontiff’s local and international celebrity, though, has a downside — inordinate personal attention.

Crowds gathered along Via Marulana, the boulevard joining the Basilica of St John Lateran and Maria Maggiore, the one-mile route of the Corpus Christi procession, buzzed with curiosity over where the pope was, and how best to see him.

A Tunisian Muslim woman in a hijab, pushing a baby stroller, and her husband told me they came out to see the pope, having never cared before.

But our Pope of the Unexpected did the unexpected: he opted to say Mass in front of St John Lateran, than let Cardinal Agostino Vallini, Vicar General of Rome, lead the Eucharistic procession — in order to keep the focus on the Blessed Sacrament, according to a Vatican announcement. The pope also had in mind a demanding upcoming trip to southern Italy.

Associated Press reported Pope Francis did not walk between the two basilicas to “take it easy.” Other reports speculated he might be sick.

But AP’s interpretation — no surprise — really misses the point of this event, as a liturgical devotion.

It was instituted in 1246 by the Bishop of Liege, Belgium, who was persuaded by a Norbertine nun, Julia of Liege. Julia was devoted to Eucharistic adoration. For twenty years she had visions of Christ asking her to help establish a feast day for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Pope Urban IV made it the Church’s first universal solemnity in 1264.    

Today, the Feast of Corpus Christi is a public holiday in countries ranging from Austria and Croatia to Peru, Haiti, and East Timor as well as parts of Spain and Germany. 

It is marked by reflection, prayer, and often, a procession capped by a benediction with the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance — in essence, a blessing from Christ as mysteriously delivered by a priest. Solemn stuff.

As darkness fell last Thursday evening on the piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore, wave after wave of religious men and women, with some lay people, entered the square, singing hymns and carrying candles. About 20,000 eventually arrived, taking reserved space in front of an alter set up in front of the basilica.

In a variety of black, blue, grey, and white habits — some easily identified like the Bridgettine nuns with noble metal headgear and Missionaries of Charity sisters in signature white saris with blue stripes — most impressive was the diversity in age and ethnicity of Christ’s most dedicated servants.

Ringing the square were lay people like me, thrilled to share in this sacred moment. Yet, there were few sounds besides voices in song or prayer, and a choir tucked inside the basilica’s portico.

Pope Francis entered the piazza from the basilica with no fanfare. In a gold chasuble and nothing on his head, the Holy Father incensed the altar. Then he donned a humeral veil to hold the monstrance, and — in almost total quiet, besides altar bells — the Holy Father raised the sacrament. As he turned the glittering Presence toward my area of the square, hundreds of people instinctively dropped to our knees.

For a Catholic traveler, there could be a no more welcomed blessing — especially cherished because it was unexpected.