ROME — It’s customary to pray in a particular way for the Holy Father on his election anniversary, his patronal day — St. George’s Day, April 23, for Jorge Bergoglio — or even on his Dec. 17 birthday.
But with Pope Francis, it seems very fitting to pray for him especially on the feast of St. Matthew, Sept. 21. We might call it his “vocation day,” and this year I was able to mark it in Rome with a little pilgrimage of prayer for our Holy Father, taking advantage of the Eternal City’s special grace of uniting Catholics with the universal pastor of the Church.
It is his “vocation day,” for it was on that day in 1953 that the 16-year-old Bergoglio knew that he would be a priest. He was passing by St. Joseph’s Basilica in Buenos Aires, a church he knew well, and felt a particular urge to enter.
“I went in. I felt it was necessary that I enter — those things you feel in you without knowing what it is,” Bergoglio would recall many decades later. “I looked — it was dark. It was a morning in September, perhaps 9 o’clock, and I saw a priest walking. I didn’t know him; he was not one of the priests of the parish. And he sat down in one of the confessionals, the last one on the left when one looks at the altar. I don’t know at all what happened next. I had the impression that someone pushed me to enter the confessional. … I went to confession — but I don’t know what happened. When I finished my confession … I knew there that I would become a priest. I was sure and certain of it.”
“In a letter of 1990, to describe this experience, he explains that it was as if he had been thrown from his horse,” reports Austen Ivereigh, a papal biographer.
Father Bergoglio would remain forever stamped by the experience. Years later, when consecrated a bishop, he chose as his motto miserando atque eligendo, which is taken from a meditation by St. Bede that is included in the breviary for Matthew’s feast. It refers to Matthew’s vocation and how Jesus, passing by the tax collector’s booth, “saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.”
My St. Matthew’s feast began with Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica — perhaps the most evocative place to pray for Peter’s successor, close to Peter’s bones under the high altar of St. Peter’s.
There are many altars in the basilica, more or less randomly assigned to priests who arrive without a reservation. The one assigned to me was that of the crucifixion of St. Peter. It’s beside the altar in which are kept the relics of two apostles, Simon and Jude, so most suitable for an apostolic feast.
After offering the Mass for Pope Francis at a Petrine altar near the relics of three apostles, I set out for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of France). While the majority of apostles have their relics in Rome (Peter, Paul, Philip, James the Less, Bartholomew, Simon and Jude), Matthew’s relics are in Salerno, Italy.
But the Church of San Luigi has become a true shrine to St. Matthew, because in one (side!) chapel, there are three Caravaggio paintings of Matthew — depicting his vocation as an apostle, his inspiration as an evangelist and his persecution as a martyr. Lamentably, the church that is most famous for its paintings of St. Matthew had no apparent observance of his feast day, not even a votive candle on the altar. At San Luigi, it appeared to be art first and piety second.
As a bishop with business in Rome, Cardinal Bergoglio used to stay nearby at a guesthouse for clergy — where he famously collected his bags and paid his bill the morning after his election as pope. So he would come frequently to San Luigi precisely to pray before the Caravaggio paintings, especially The Calling of Matthew. It is probably the best place to pray for Pope Francis as a man and a disciple, rather than as the pope, in Rome.
As an added blessing, I could pray for my own archbishop, Michael Mulhall, who was consecrated a bishop on the same feast in 2007.
Miserando atque eligendo: St. Matthew’s feast in 1953 involved three aspects that have remained pastoral priorities of Pope Francis his whole life: mercy, discernment and confession.
The mercy is evident in the Caravaggios. Confession is highlighted at a church that invited a stop on the way to San Luigi, San Salvatore in Lauro. I don’t think I have ever heard it called that, though; it’s always the “Padre Pio church,” as some of his relics are kept there, and it is a center for the Padre Pio prayer groups. Pilgrims sometimes don’t even get into the main nave of the church, as the altar of Padre Pio — his relics include the mantle he wore over his habit, as well as the blood of his stigmata — is near the entrance.
For a pope who stresses the importance of confession as the privileged place of God’s mercy, Padre Pio is a powerful intercessor, especially during the novena leading up to his feast day, Sept. 23. As the Collect for Padre Pio’s feast puts it, “by means of his ministry, [the Father] renewed the wonders of [his] mercy.” Pope Francis proposes the same grace for every priest.
The final stop on the pilgrimage for the “vocation day” of Pope Francis was the Gesu, the principal church of the Jesuit order and home of the tomb of St. Ignatius. From the Ignatian tradition the Holy Father learned the art of discernment, which he offers to the whole Church as a particular gift from the first Jesuit pope.
To pray for the Pope ought to be part of a Catholic’s daily prayers, just as it is part of every Mass offered. But on St. Matthew’s feast in Rome, it is easier — and perhaps more blessed — to do so than on any other day.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.