Daily Mass is at 7 am. Most Catholic parishes that have a weekday Mass at this hour have it for people who are going to work. The chapel of St. Martha's is no different; many of the members of the congregation have jobs that need to be attended to first thing in the morning, and they often come for miles around to be there before they begin their day. At 6:40am people are already lined up outside the door waiting to enter. In the winter months its still dark at that hour and the glow coming from inside lights the sidewalk and promises the warmth within. When the congregation enters just before 7, the staff in side welcome them warmly, give them a place to hang their coats, and show them to the chapel. Inside, one of the priests welcomes those gathered with a warm smile and a genuine happiness which is unmistakably real. This is the chapel at St. Martha's, and they are happy that you are there.
Precisely at 7am, if not a few seconds before, Fr. Jorge enters, makes the sign of the cross, and begins the mass. His prayerfulness and focus are clear. He listens to the word of God being proclaimed in the readings with a deep intensity and it is clear that he, himself, feels as convicted by the words of scripture as anyone else at mass. He rises from his seat after the Gospel to preach, and without notes offers a 6 or 7 minute reflection, during which everyone in the room somehow feels as if he may have been speaking directly to them. He then moves onto the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and it is almost as if you can see the weight and seriousness of what he is doing weighing on his shoulders. Make no mistakes, this is a priest who, as the rite of ordination for Catholic priests demands, knows what he is doing. When the Mass is ended, and he has removed his vestments, he comes and sits in the back of the chapel with the people in a few moments prayer and reflection, then his day has begun.
Like many pastors, he greets the people outside the chapel as they are leaving morning mass, but with more than just a handshake and a "have a nice day." He spends a few moments with each person, he asks about their lives, he cracks jokes with them, he is playful with the children who are there with their parents, and he usually gives the culturally appropriate good bye of a kiss on each cheek to the women who were there. This is the moment that so many have waited for and it is more than just a brief moment, because in that moment Fr. Jorge is once again the pastor of St. Martha's. That he is also Pope Francis, the Supreme Pontiff, Christ's Vicar on earth, seems far less important to him than simply being a pastor at that moment.
I have been asked often, as a priest living in Rome, just what it is that has allowed Pope Francis to capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of so many in his first year as Pope. I think it is summed up by the experience that I just described, when on one morning a few weeks ago I took my parents to Mass with Pope Francis in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the hotel where he lives inside the Vatican. It is neither in his erudition nor is it in his ability to play the crowd, and although comparisons are always odious, one could argue that Benedict XVI and John Paul II, respectively, were more talented than him in those areas. It may just be precisely because his gift is in being a pastor and because, as a pastor, he exercises a remarkable care for the individual before him, if only for a few minutes. It may be because, as a pastor, he genuinely wants to invite people into that experience of God's mercy and love that he himself experiences. It is perhaps because, before he was Pope Francis and before he was Cardinal Bergoglio, he was and still is, Fr. Jorge, a pastor with his people, waking up early like so many other priests, to say daily mass at 7am.
This post first appeared at The Road From LaStorta