Why Did Pope Francis Go to St Mary Major?

Pope Francis praying at the tomb of Pope St Pius V

The first thing this morning Pope Francis went secretly to pray at the basilica church of St Mary Major in Rome. It is a custom for a new pope to go to this great church to pray, but for Pope Francis it was the first thing on his agenda. While he was there he made it a point to pray at the tomb of Pope St Pius V. Is this significant? Does it matter? If it is significant what does it signify?

First of all, it is significant. Popes are aware of the historic nature of their office. They know that the papacy is one. All the popes exercise the same ministry and they all complement one another–even the wicked ones in their way fulfilled the divine providence. Furthermore, the Popes know their actions and words are significant. This is why they carefully choose their papal name. Benedict XVI chose his name for sound and significant reasons. Francis chose his name for sound and significant reasons. During his papacy, Benedict paid two very significant visits to the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V – the pope who decided that a pope could abdicate, and the only one who did abdicate for the good of the church. Benedict then follows his example and abdicates for the good of the church.

The very first thing Francis does is go to St Mary Major to pray at the tomb of Pius V.

So who was Pope St Pius V? He was a reforming pope who reigned from 1566- 1572. He cleaned up the curia, excommunicated heretical bishops, cleaned up the immorality in the church and swept the church clean– paving the way for the great surge in the church we call the Counter Reformation. He also excommunicated the tyrant Elizabeth I of England and formed the Holy League–a confederation of Catholic armies which eventually defeated the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto. Pius V also instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victories (nor the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary).

St Francis lived during a time of corruption, wealth and power in the church. He heard Christ say to him, “re-build my church.” Will Pope Francis also hear the call from Christ to “re-build my church” and not only be a new Francis but a new Pius V? I think we will see some high drama in the months to come. Certainly if his reputation in his native Argentina is anything to go by, we may well see a Pope who is uncompromising in his proclamation of the fullness of the Catholic faith. He stood up against an aggressive secular authority when they tried to impose same sex marriage and abortion. He also stood up to his clergy and led by example with an austere life committed fully to the gospel. He also stood up against the clergy who wanted to get involved in politics. He has said ambition and power seeking are a sin.

Will Pope Francis be the “new broom” the Vatican needs right now? What will happen when he cleans up the Vatican, and then turns his broom to secular society? Like Pius V, does he perceive the Muslims as a threat to be dealt with rather than a friend to be reconciled? If he attacks the secular dogmas of free sex, abortion, homosexuality and feminism what will be the outcome? Will he be the person to lead us, like Pius V in a crusade against immorality and corruption both in the church and without? If he makes enemies will he last long? Does he have the strength to do this job? Is this precisely why the Cardinals elected him–to clean up the mess we are in once and for all?

This may be an even more exciting election than any of us predicted last night.

For the best assessment of Pope Francis and his election go here for George Weigel

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  • Mike

    In re Pius V, let’s not forget that liturgical legacy of the Counter-Reformation, the Tridentine Mass that lives on in the Extraordinary Form (about which it would appear there is some much-overdone traditionalist heartburn with the election of Francis).

  • John Burt Polhamus

    One can’t help noting that in his mass at the Sistine Chapel today the Coffee-table altar made its re-appearance. And further, that the central altar-cross has suffered the delete button. Christ: OFF the altar. Neither of these signs represent responsible prioritization in liturgy, but then we should all know by now that in Latin-America the “communal meal” theory of the mass is rife, so we should not be surprised to be stuck, liturgically and theologically, back in the early 1970′s once again, which is apparently where we find ourselves. Francis may well be a reformer, but I didn’t like the reforms he has to date embraced in 1970 when I was seven, and I don’t like them today. His cronies, Sodano, Hummes, et al, are the problem, and now they have their man. I pray for him, and perhaps he will do some good, but he is already showing tendencies that will do much harm as well. St. Joseph, patron of the Universal church, intercede for him and for us. Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, intercede for him…and for us.

  • http://brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

    Also, St. Mary Major is the place where St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of Pope Francis’ order, celebrated his first Mass.

  • http://commentarius-ioannis.blogspot.com/ Ioannes

    Father Longenecker,

    Father Frank Westcott in Chapter 10, “The Reformation of the Church in England”, within his work, “Orthodox Anglican Principles”, of 1902 gives a different view of the excommunication of Elizabeth I than what you allude to by your statement: “[Pope St. Pius V] also excommunicated the tyrant Elizabeth I of England…” Specifically, Father Westcott states the following:


    And when, later, Elizabeth was invited to attend the Council of Trent as a Protestant, she resented the term as applied to herself, and said that:

    “An invidious distinction is made between me and such other Catholic Potentates as have been invited to this Council.”

    And to several Roman Catholic princes, she wrote:

    “There is no new faith propagated in England, no religion set up, but that which was commanded by our Saviour, preached by the primitive Church, and unanimously approved by the Fathers of the best antiquity.”

    Popes Pius IV and Paul IV virtually acknowledged that the Reformed Church of England was still the old Catholic Church of England, when they offered to accept the reformed Prayer Book, if Elizabeth would conform again to papal obedience.

    For thirty-five years after the Reformation was an accomplished fact, after Parliament and Convocation had repudiated papal authority, and for the first twelve years of Elizabeth’s reign, the English Church was in communion with the Continental Churches under the papacy, and Roman Catholics communicated freely at her altars. The suspension of intercommunion was brought about by the Pope, when, despairing of regaining control of the English Church, he excommunicated Elizabeth in 1569. A number of papists then withdrew from the old Catholic Church, and organized the Latin or Roman mission, which is now known as the Roman Catholic Church in England, and which has no connection with the pre-Reformation Church of England of any sort or description. The present Roman Catholic hierarchy in England was organized in 1850, with Doctor Wiseman as the Cardinal Archbishop. And not until comparatively recently (the 19th century), did the new Roman Bishops begin to use the old historic names for their dioceses.


    I find it most curious that the Pope of that time would have been willing to accept the Book of Common Prayer if England were to give allegiance to Rome. Father Frank N. Westcott goes on to point out in Chapter 13, “The Growth of Papal Claims”, the following:


    …it is a curious fact, that the first Bishop to call himself “universal Bishop” was not the Pope of Rome, but John, Pope of Constantinople, who in 589 assumed the title of universal Bishop. Gregory, Pope of Rome, wrote to the Emperor, “I confidently affirm that whosoever calls himself, or desires himself to be called, universal priest, is in his pride going before Antichrist; because through pride, he prefers himself to the rest.” To the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, Gregory wrote: “This name, Universal Pontiff, was offered during the Holy Synod of Chalcedon to the Pontiff of the Apostolic See, a post which by God’s providence I fill. But no one of my predecessors consented to use so profane a term, because plainly, if a single patriarch is called universal, the name of patriarch is taken from all the rest.” To John of Constantinople, Gregory wrote, “The sole head of the universal church is Christ.”

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    The Feast of Our Lady of Victory was about the miraculous victory over the Muslim Turks. Francis did a lot of cleaning up, Francis Xavier and the Jesuits did a lot of cleaning up in a different way. This could be a VERY interesting ride. I’m in!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    That view was, of course, written by an Anglican.

  • David Naas

    “the tyrant Elizabeth I” I suspect Betty Davis, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett are all going to be out to get you for this, Padre. :)

  • http://lorenzo.fernandez@mac.com Lorenzo

    an aggressive secular authority tried to impose gay marriage? do you mean the now democratically elected government of a once dictatorial country which the then Vatican appointed archbishop failed to oppose?

  • Richard M

    Pope Francis does seem like a “low church” Catholic when it comes to liturgy and ceremonials.

    I think that’s just something that traditionalist-minded folks will have to deal with, and focus instead on the other strengths he brings to the papacy.

  • http://tomperna.org Tom Perna

    Not sure what pictures you saw this morning, but there is an altar cross in the center. I am looking at it as I write you this comment.

    One question for you – how do you view the Eastern Catholic Liturgy since it’s not in Latin?

  • http://NewAdvent New Catholic08

    Let’s pray he is all those things and more.

  • Matt R

    Let’s not make rash judgments based on one Mass, and besides, the altar in front of the high altar has been there since before conclave since it is where they count and scrutinize the ballots. They did not have time to move it, I imagine.

  • http://agelastes.blogspot.com David Porter

    With all due respect, the most charitable view one can take of Westcott’s book is that it is out-of-date. Among other things, he conveniently omits WHICH prayer book was accepted by the two Popes, and gets the year of Elizabeth’s excommunication wrong (it was 1570). Moreover, the quote from Gregory the Great (which can be found in his Epistles 7:33) is misleading. No one who has ever read Gregory the Great’s letters would ever maintain that he rejected the Papacy. The same man also wrote “the Apostolic See, which is the head of all other churches” (13:1) and “I, albeit unworthy, have been set up in command of the Church” (5:44).

    My apologies if I come across unduly critical.

    In Christ,

  • Rich

    Father, great article today. Am I the only one that thinks unification (“to be one”)of the Christian Church into One Holy Catholic Church is high on the agenda? Do you or your readers think that he can bring other denominations back into the fold?

    Thank you


  • Jacob S

    Well, let’s see. Did someone try to impose gay marriage? Check. Was that someone an authority? Check. Was that authority secular? Check. Were they aggressive in their imposition? Check. Did the then Cardinal Archbishop oppose them? Check.

    What exactly is your quibble here?

  • Happy Lay Dominican

    I prefer to think it has something to do with Pope St. Pius V being a Dominican.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    As someone who was confirmed by Card. Hummes when he was my bishop, you have no clue about what you’re talking about. Actually, I do: you were clued in by the prince of lies.

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    I stand shoulder to shoulder in what you say. May I add it was the Rosary that won the Battle of La Panto and the description of Elizabeth is spot on.

  • http://EmbracingYourGreatness.org Christina

    Can I interview you on my radio show about this Monday?
    How can I reach you?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    What radio show do you host?

  • Jim Hibbs

    Let us pray all of the above is true as people and no small part catholics need to be ecouraged in a course change to God.

  • http://www.thetalkingllama.wordpress.com sketchesbyboze

    Thank you for being willing to speak the truth about Queen Elizabeth the First.

  • m e wood

    Fr Gregory was also an Anglican clergyman .
    The Orthodox Church in England has a different view of the history of the Church in Britain.
    The Antiochians are also in Australia and New Zealand
    The Antiochian Church in the U.S seems to be a different organisation, though.

    BTW Not all Anglicans are like those in the U.S-it is a world wide church after all. it spreads into Africa and around the Commonwealth. (which is still extant though it is not popular with the U.S newsmedia. )

  • http://Www.catholicalcoholic.com Number 9

    This is so interesting. So what are the priorities for cleaning up the Curia? I read something about an active homosexual network? Was that a rumor or will Pope Francis have to deal with this too?

  • Wild Bill

    May god bless and keep Pope Francis in his arms.

  • David

    Perhaps one might add (in the words of P. Suau in 1909 in the Catholic Encyclopedia), “The pontificate of Pius V and the generalship of [St. Francis (!)] Borgia began within an interval of a few months and ended at almost the same time. The saintly pope had entire confidence in the saintly general, who conformed with intelligent devotion to every desire of the pontiff.”

    Ought one (equally) to speak of the tyrants Charles IX and Catherine de’ Medici? G. Goyau’s articles on her and on “Saint Bartholomew’s Day” for the Catholic Encyclopedia, of a similar (“out-of-date”?) vintage with Westcott’s book, reward (re-)reading for a more detailed impression of events of the last year of Pius V’s/first year of Gregory XIII’s pontificates, with Catherine trying to marry her third son to Elizabeth two months before massacring the Hugenots, and Catherine and Charles presented as attempting to buffalo Elizabeth as they succeeded in buffaloeing Gregory XIII about its ‘necessity’.

  • Lee

    I am struck with the same thoughts too. I sense that “pertus romanus” is a description of the pastoral mannerism of the supposed “last pope” by way in which Pope Francis has emphasized the office of ” the bishop of Rome” at the reduction of the Petrine ministry, twice remarking thus, even referring to Pope Emeritus Benedict xvi as “bishop emeritus”. Moreover, the refusal of the Mozzetta may indicate more than eschewing pompous clothing but a subtle way of eliminating the papal’s monarchical perrogatives.. As has been pointed out st. Francis full name was ” francesco di pietro di bernardone” — an interesting association of names considering that the present pontiff is possibly the last according to the prophecy of st. Malachy. So an argentine of Italian descent returns to Rome to be placed on the chair of Peter with the name Francis of Peter from Assisi. St. Francis brought much comfort as Pope Francis appears to be doing already.

  • La Guitarra de Lolo

    Democratically elected the Kirchnerrs? Just like Mussolini, Hitler, and Chavez

  • Matt

    Yes, let’s wait and see what the Holy Father’s Coronation/Installation/word du-jour Mass is like. That will set the tone. I also hope he moves a little bit more sense of grace than just common aplomb. His movements have been more like checking out at Wal-Mart.

  • u3

    Thank you to Pope Benedict XVI for teaching us the faith…thank you to Pope Francis for showing us how to live the faith. He’s a great witness and great example of faith in action.

  • David

    Do we know exactly how much Pope Francis was thinking about which ‘Francis’ in choosing his name? Besides St. Francis of Assisi, I have also seen St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis de Sales – and St. Francis Borgia suggested. The latter was not only Vicar-General of the Society of Jesus but has sometimes been called its “Second Founder”, and in his 1909 article for the Catholic Encyclopedia, Pierre Suau writes, “Three saints of this epoch laboured incessantly to further the renaissance of Catholicism. They were St. Francis Borgia, St. Pius V, and St. Charles Borromeo. The pontificate of Pius V and the generalship of Borgia began within an interval of a few months and ended at almost the same time. The saintly pope had entire confidence in the saintly general, who conformed with intelligent devotion to every desire of the pontiff.” Perhaps another element in Pope Francis’s visit to the tomb of Pope Pius V.

  • fiatlux

    In the video I saw, the VERY first thing he did was offer flowers to Mary and pray to her. Then a prayer at the manger, then, a short, standing prayer at the tomb.

  • Fr. Johnson

    One further point: Elizabeth began the de-Catholicization of her realm in the very first year of her reign, ordering the priest in her chapel not to elevate the Host on Christmas of that year. Not exactly a sign of good faith (in either sense) or of her intention to fulfill her oath to uphold the Roman Catholic faith restored by Queen Mary, which was a condition of her being allowed to ascend the throne.

  • http://www.fatheramaro.com Rev. Amaro Saumell

    I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church! because I beleive that the protection of the Holy Spirit, breathed on the apostles and their successors is ever present, I dare not to presume His actions or His choices. How saddened I was to see a “Do you approve” placed at the top of this screen. Our pope cannot be reduced to human politics.

  • Jason Sharbaugh

    Relatively meaningless about the views of his liturgical matters….. Those matters are his preference, will reflect the culture he comes from (as always happens), and does not mean that such will apply everywhere. Moreover, these deal with liturgically matters specifically of which he is in line with all the updates and bringing into unity that Pope Benedict led into. Being in unity is not just about wanting the people in leadership roles to conform to what we would want or understand things to be.

    There are other matters to be in unity with that are much more important than tribal perceptions. Moreover, Pope Francis is sooooo bad @$$. Take what he said in reference to same-sex marriage: “Let’s not be naive. We’re not talking about a simple political battle. It is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.

  • Ismael

    “”Like Pius V, does he perceive the Muslims as a threat to be dealt with rather than a friend to be reconciled? “”

    I doubt it. The Muslims at the time were a threath because they were under the Ottoman Empire, who was trying to exapnd into Europe and had already conquered a good portion of Eastern Europe and where trying to push into Italy and other western Europe countries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ottoman_empire.svg)

    Today the relations with muslims are more friendly and there is no open war pending between European countries and muslim countries.

    I am sure that Pope Francis will take the St. Francis of Assisi approach: peaceful evangelisation.

  • Lorena

    I d rather have a Pope whose movements are like checking out at Walmart, than whose movements are superficial and like checking out at Saks Fifth!

  • Jacques

    If our Holy Father Francis the 1st is in the footsteps of St Pius V regarding immorality in the priesthood and peculiarly the homosexuality, then a lot of pedophile priests have to worry: Pius V said that these bad clerics must be immediately defrocked and handed to the civil justice for a just chastisement.

  • Joe Conder

    David Porter, The point is, Pope St. Gregory’s conception of the papacy was not one of being a “Universal Pontiff”. Unfortunately, that is what the office of the papacy became in the West.

  • http://tinyurl.com/estquodest Pauli

    I think that’s just something that traditionalist-minded folks will have to deal with…


  • David Martin

    Very poor and sarcastic commentary, lacking charity and insight. The fact that Pope Francis said a Novus Ordo Mass is in itself no indication of a forthcoming restoration of the Mass, granted, but he nonetheless may have this in his plans. And don’t forget his devotion to the daily 15 decade Rosary: you owe him credit and apology right there. And Sodano, Bertone, and Hummes are not his cronies, but foes. If there is one thing to be observed about Francis, it’s that he has no use for elite hierarchical bureaucracies, and in fact he stood up against these very sort of priests in Argentina. Therefore he is not responsible for the heretical “bread and wine” mentality in Argentina, no more than John Paul II or Benedict were responsible altar girls or pedophilia abuse. Don’t forget that Cardinal Bergoglio was the first in his country to respond to Summorum Pontificum by designating that chapel of St. Michael for the regular celebration of the Tridentine Mass. This is not to say he was perfect in his country, but we should focus now on his calling as Peter, rather than dwell on his shortcomings as Simon.

  • Ted

    We should only hope and pray that Pope Francis and all the church respect the teachings of the SecondVatican Council in regard to the Liturgy – because if the teachings of the largest council in church history are not respected then we might as well all just lock the church doors and go home. If Francis brings back a simplicity in style of vestment that in itself will help to restore the credibility of the church which rails against homosexuals then dispays men with a fondness for wearing lace!

  • http://agelastes.blogspot.com David Porter

    St. Gregory only rejected the title ‘universal bishop’ in sense that the title implies that other bishops are not true bishops; as he makes clear in Epistle IX.68 ‘For if one, as he supposes, is universal bishop, it remains that you are not bishops.’ It still stands that throughout his letters, St. Gregory constantly affirms the primacy of the Apostolic See of Rome and the Pope’s (his own) authority over all other bishops.