Pope Francis leaves his home in the Vatican despite Italy’s lockdown on Sunday afternoon to pray for those affected by the coronavirus at a popular crucifix that believers say helped save Romans from the plague in 1522.
Reports said the Pope parked his Ford Focus car near the Church of San Marcello in Rome’s city center, where the crucifix is located, in order to take a small walk to the church as a sign of pilgrimage.
In a statement, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said:
“The Holy Father pleaded for an end to the pandemic that has struck Italy and the world.”
The Pope also prayed for the healing of the many sick, remembered the numerous victims of these past days and asked that their families and friends might find consolation and comfort. He also prayed for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers.
A priest of the vicariate of Rome, Fr. Elio Lops said Pope Francis was accompanied during his visit by the Archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko.
Lops, who was also there during the pope’s visit, said The Holy Father prayed silently before the icon for about 20 minutes and also stopped at the chapel of the crucifix.
The pope walked about half a mile on foot from the papal basilica to the Church of San Marcello al Corso to pray before a miraculous crucifix, which was once carried in procession through the streets of Rome during the plague of 1522.
According to the church’s rector, Fr. Enrico Casini, Francis also stopped to pray before a statue of St. Joseph.
The wooden crucifix at San Marcello dates from the 14th century. Believers say the crucifix is “miraculous” because it survived a fire that torched down the church on May 23, 1519.
Three years after the incident, during Rome’s Great Plague, the crucifix was carried by the faithful in procession through all the houses of Rome, from San Marcello to St. Peter’s Basilica. It lasted 16 days, from August 4 to 20. Legend says the plague ended on the day the crucifix reached St. Peter’s.
Since the 1600s, processions from the Church of San Marcello to St. Peter’s Basilica were performed during Jubilee Years. Even the late Pope John Paul II embraced the crucifix during the Jubilee Year of 2000.
According to Lops, it was all a surprise.
Pope Francis wanted to make the visit to encourage Italians during the quarantine conditions across Italy, and added that Francis wanted to go to the Basilica of St. Mary Major on March 13, the seventh anniversary of his pontificate, but because he’s unable to, he had told Cardinal Rylko he would come at another, unspecified time.
Like all of Italy, Rome is currently under lockdown, with people required to stay indoors except for strict cases of necessity. All non-essential businesses are also closed.
Lops explained that the Pope’s actions were not in any way intended to be against the decrees of the Italian government, but was meant as a sign of encouragement to Romans.
He also added:
“It was also risky in a certain sense for his health, because he is old.”
Just before praying in front of San Marcello’s crucifix, Pope Francis visited the icon of the Virgin Mary in the Church of St. Mary Major. Known as Mary, Health of Romans (Salus Populi Romani) it is a favorite icon of Pope Francis; he visits it to pray before and after his every papal trip and ahead of other important events.
Like the San Marcello crucifix, the icon was also included in the procession in an effort to help stop a plague in 593 by Pope St. Gregory the Great.
According to the Vatican, prayers were also offered to the icon by Pope Gregory XVI in an attempt to end a cholera pandemic in 1837.