Pope Francis

+ Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney
24 Mar 2013

Today, Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  His followers then gave Jesus due honour, but this changed quickly so that his enemies had him crucified by Friday.  Everyone saw this, but not everyone saw the Risen Christ.

Last Tuesday on the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis was installed ceremonially as pope and successor of St. Peter.  It was a wonderful and happy congregation in St. Peter's Square, tightly packed one on another, with about two M.C.G. grand final crowds present (200,000).  This will no doubt sustain the Holy Father in the serious business which is now beginning.

5600 accredited media representatives were present from around the world, many more than in 2005.

Some don't like the Catholic message, but the church provides good copy and cannot be ignored.  132 delegations attended, with 31 heads of state, including a representative of the President of China and the outrageous 89 year old Robert Mugabe, the tyrant from Zimbabwe.  A sprinkling of royals were there as well as the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew and a senior representative of the Patriarch of Moscow and leaders of the Jewish and Islamic faiths.  Sir William Deane, former Governor General and Lady Deane represented Australia assisted by the Australian Ambassador to the Vatican, John McCarthy.

The ceremonial today is quite simple, when compared with the medieval pageantry which continued around Rome at different churches containing the relics of St. Peter some days; when the centrepiece was the pope receiving the triple-tiered crown representing his role as priest, prophet and king.

The emphasise today is more on service than kingship, so there is no coronation.  Unfortunately another piece of medieval symbolism was also abolished.  No longer is a lighted candle held before the new pope and then extinguished with the words "so passes the glory of the world".

One of the most impressive parts of the ceremony for me was when all the cardinals gathered around the high altar in the Basilica, above St. Peter's tomb, while the new pope, accompanied by the heads of the Eastern Catholic churches, descended into the crypt to pray and retrieve the Fisherman's ring and the pallium (or stole) from Peter's tomb which symbolize his role as bishop of Rome and head of the universal church.

By a happy coincidence a Sydney deacon, Daniel McCaughan, was one of the Pope's two assistants, who joined him in the crypt to retrieve and carry the ring, just as another Sydney deacon, Nicholas Rynne assisted the Pope in the earlier Mass for the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel.  On a less exalted note the Australian flag waved by the delegation from the Sydney universities was by far the largest in the Square!

In the ancient Roman Empire Christians were persecuted off and on for nearly 300 years only receiving religious freedom under Emperor Constantine in 313.

St. Peter had been executed, head downwards, in Nero's circus, or race track, on the Vatican hill around 64 A.D.  He was buried in a nearby cemetery, which can still be visited deep below the basilica.

Constantine decided to build a suitable memorial above Peter's tomb, levelling a good part of the hillside for the foundations of the church, which did not follow the design of a pagan temple, but the basilica form of a public meeting place.  Today's high altar is the third, built one over the other, since the early fourth century.  Pilgrims have been coming to pray from at least the second century, and their early graffiti can still be seen.

After these introductory prayers pope and cardinals processed to the Square, where the Mass was celebrated in fine weather, although it rained heavily on the days before and after St. Joseph's Day. The only additions to the traditional Mass were when two different cardinals placed the Fisherman's ring on the Pope's hand and draped around his neck the pallium or stole, made of white lamb's wool to signify a good shepherd and the sacrificial lamb, and decorated with six red crosses.

Pope Francis has a preaching style different both from that of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.  His message was again simple and memorable; we were to care for one another and God's creation just as St. Joseph cared for the young Jesus as he grew into a man.

By any standards it was a memorable day.  The pope has started well and is broadly accepted as a taxi driver and the waiter who served me a cappuccino both confirmed.

All Christians should pray that God will continue to bless him and lead him.