Pope Francis visits St. Mary Major, collects suitcases and pays hotel bill

Vatican Information Service

VATICAN CITY — It was no secret. Like one who has no cares that everyone knows what he intended to do. At 8:24 p.m. March 13 in his first public appearance Pope Francis stated: “Tomorrow I am going to pray to the Virgin, for the safekeeping of all of Rome.” Then at 8:05 a.m. March 14, leaving the Vatican for the first time as pontiff, the newly elected pope took one of the Gendarmerie’s simple service cars to the papal basilica of St. Mary Major, the oldest and largest church dedicated to the Virgin in Rome. It is also one of the four largest in the city and claims the king of Spain as its proto-canon. The new pontiff of the Catholic Church chose to enter through one of the basilica’s side doors.

Upon entering the basilica the pope headed toward the venerated icon of Our Lady, “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress of the Roman People), accompanied by Cardinal Santos Abril y Castello, archpriest of the basilica,  Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, and others.

After leaving the Virgin a bouquet of flowers on the altar, the holy father prayed silently for about 10 minutes before the main altar that is directly above the crypt containing relics of the crib or manger of the Nativity of Jesus. He also visited the basilica’s Sistine Chapel, which is where St. Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass after being ordained a priest. The saint waited several months, until Christmas Eve 1538, to say his first Mass.

“It is a very significant place in Jesuit spirituality,” Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, noted.

Finally, the new Roman pontiff also stopped to pray before the tomb of St. Pius V, also in that chapel.

Pope Francis greeted the basilica’s chapter of canons, confessors, priests, all the personnel that work there, and the faithful and journalists that he met along the way.

The holy father left as he had arrived, with a minimal escort and entourage. He was accompanied by Archbishop Georg Ganswein and Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, S.C.I., respectively prefect and regent of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household. Along the way, however, he surprised everyone by first sending an affectionate greeting to children from a nearby school and then by asking his driver to stop by the Domus Internationalis “Paulus VI” near Piazza Navona where he had stayed before entering the conclave. The pope greeted those working there, gathered his belongings, and paid his bill.