ROME (CNS) — With Italy on lockdown and Rome streets almost deserted, Pope Francis left the Vatican March 15 in a mini-pilgrimage to an icon and to a crucifix associated with miraculous interventions to save the city and its people.
The icon is “Salus Populi Romani” (health of the Roman people) in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and the crucifix, which Romans call the “Miraculous Crucifix,” is housed in the Church of St. Marcellus on Via del Corso, a usually crowded street of shops leading to the central Piazza Venezia.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the Vatican said, Pope Francis was driven, with a small police escort, to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Joined by Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, archpriest of the basilica, he entered the Pauline Chapel where the “Salus Populi Romani” icon looks down from high above the altar.
The pope laid a bouquet of yellow and white flowers on the altar and sat in prayer in front of the chapel’s famous icon of Mary and the child Jesus.
Pope Francis prays before the icon often, including before and after every trip he makes abroad. But, long before that, the image was connected to the faith of the Roman people in times of dire health emergencies. According to legend, late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory I had the icon carried through the streets of Rome in prayer that the Black Plague would end, and in 1837, Pope Gregory XVI prayed before the image for an end to a devastating cholera outbreak.
The crucifix at the church of St. Marcellus is a 15th-century wooden crucifix that survived a fire in 1519 that burned to the ground the original church on the site. The morning after the fire, while the ruins were still smoldering, people found the crucifix intact. Some Catholics began gathering every Friday evening to pray together, eventually forming the Confraternity of the Most Holy Crucifix.
In 1522, in the midst of the great plague in Rome, the faithful carried the crucifix in procession throughout the city for 16 days. According to an article on the website of TV2000, the Italian bishops’ television station, devotion to the crucifix led the city’s people to defy “the authorities, who for fear that the contagion would spread further, had banned all gatherings of people.”
The situation was similar when the pope, stopping his car on the Via del Corso, made a point of walking to the church “as in pilgrimage,” said Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office.
“With his prayer, the Holy Father invoked the end of the pandemic striking Italy and the world, imploring healing for the many people who are sick, remembering the many victims and asking that their family and friends find consolation and comfort,” Bruni said.
The pope, he added, also prayed as he did that morning at Mass, for health care workers, doctors, nurses and all those who are still working in Italy.
Pope Francis’ prayer in a time of pandemic
you always shine on our path
as a sign of salvation and of hope.
We entrust ourselves to you,
Health of the Sick,
who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.
You, Salvation of the Roman People,
know what we need,
and we are sure you will provide
so that, as in Cana of Galilee,
we may return to joy and to feasting
after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform to the will of the Father
and to do as we are told by Jesus,
who has taken upon himself our
sufferings and carried our sorrows
to lead us, through the cross,
to the joy of the resurrection.
Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God. Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.
Pope Francis prays in front of the Marian icon “Salus Populi Romani” at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome March 15. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)