Pastor Recalls First ‘Mercy Friday’ of the Jubilee

Father Lucio Zappatore speaks about a special papal ‘surprise’ among the elderly of Torre Spaccata, Italy.

Pope Francis makes a surprise visit to the retirement home Bruno Buozzi on Jan. 15.
Pope Francis makes a surprise visit to the retirement home Bruno Buozzi on Jan. 15. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

“I am Archbishop Fisichella. I would like to come to Torre Spaccata to celebrate the jubilee.” The phone call was received at the start of January 2016 by Father Lucio Zappatore, a 73-year-old Carmelite priest and parish pastor in that suburb of Rome.

“‘How nice!’ I thought to myself,” he recalled, 10 months later, to the Register. “Even the head of the jubilee gains an indulgence with the works of mercy.”

The request of Archbishop Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and in charge of organizing the Year of Mercy, was to visit a building not far from the Church of Santa Maria Regina Mundi, then the parish of Father Zappatore (who has since moved to San Martino ai Monti). It is a structure isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, divided by different services: mental-health center, home for women victims of violence, home for boys, home for the elderly and a center housing mainly young victims of serious road accidents.

Pope Francis has explained that “mercy becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs, as Jesus himself taught us.”

Over the course of the just-closed jubilee, the Holy Father promised to perform, on a Friday each month, a gesture to recall the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The “Mercy Fridays” were to be performed very discreetly.

When Archbishop Fisichella came to Torre Spaccata, a resident at the nursing home asked, kidding a bit: “Next time, why don’t you bring the Pope here?” 

“Let’s see ...,” the archbishop said in a rather vague way.

“Then he left, without saying anything more,” Father Zappatore recalled.

But on Jan. 12, his cellphone rang again: “Father, do not take commitments for next Friday,” said Archbishop Fisichella on the other end.

“But do not talk to anyone,” he added in a serious tone.

“It was an anguish,” the pastor remembered. “In the parish, there was a community of three priests; I could not say anything, even to them.”

On the morning of Jan. 15 came the confirmation of what the parish priest had suspected: The Pope wanted to come visit Torre Spaccata.

“Be careful,” Archbishop Fisichella warned. “If the Pope sees a camera or a journalist, the car will turn around and leave.”

“But this, fortunately, did not happen,” explained the relieved priest to the Register.


Arrival of the Pope

At 4pm, Francis got out of his Ford Focus and stepped through the door of the nursing home, and all those present — including guests and employees of the house — were in total disbelief. While everyone, caught by surprise, was busy taking pictures and shaking hands with the Pope, the only authorized video camera (the one of the Vatican Television Center) captured Father Zappatore speaking on his cellphone. He was calling to gather his parishioners with disabilities to see the Pope.

Archbishop Fisichella had said: “Once the Pope arrives and enters, you can call whomever you like, but the important thing is that the Pope is already inside.”

The same camera then filmed the Pope and the elderly sitting in a circle, with Francis holding the hand of the woman next to him. As Father Lucio Zappatore tells it: “First of all, the Pope asked: ‘What do you usually do at this hour?’ Answer: ‘We take tea.’ And then he said, ‘May we take it together?’ Then there was more than an hour of conversation, and the Pope listened to everyone with patience, without rushing anyone. I was the impatient one, because I was afraid that someone would monopolize the conversation. Finally, he went upstairs to greet even those who could not move from their rooms.”

While having tea, Archbishop Fisichella revealed to the Pope the other “identity” of Father Zappatore: a prolific poet in the Roman dialect. Among his works stand out many poems dedicated to the popes. One example dates back to March 23, 2013, when Francis visited the just-retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

“He also wrote a poem for your election,” Archbishop Fisichella told Francis.

“Let’s hear it,” the Pope said. “When I used to walk around Rome, I heard people speak Roman, but I did not understand anything.”

Pope Francis and the Secrets of the Holy Spirit is the tale, in verses, of a “phone call” that Father Zappatore made to the Holy Spirit. As the conclave was under way, “since many names were being circulated, I thought of directly ‘calling’ the Holy Spirit to know who the new Pope is,” the priest-poet explained.

Francis laughed, then asked: “Can I also have the telephone number of the Holy Spirit?”


Other Mercy Fridays

After the Torre Spaccata trip, there were 10 other Mercy Fridays. All were equally surprising for the people visited and full of good feelings for the Pope. For former drug addicts, the disabled, ex-prostitutes, children without families, priests in difficulty and parents of sick babies, it was wonderful to meet the Pope in person.

For their part, Father Zappatore and his flock will long remember their papal visit.

“I have named the poem I wrote that evening after greeting the Pope The Dream,” Father Zappatore explained.

And although the rhyme, in translating from Italian to English, is lost, it is still worth reflecting on the poem’s conclusion: “Suddenly, then, I woke up. It was not a dream — it was true! Pope Francis was really in the midst of all of us, truly! Pope Francis, you’ll never stop! Do not give up journeying to the whole world. We need — and you know it — an angel who loves us to the very end.”


Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.