I was happy to see that Pope Francis took some time for himself on Easter Monday and visited the excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica. This was not simply a tourist stop, of course, but a visit to the roots of the papacy – St. Peter’s tomb was discovered there in the late 1940s.
As a former student of archeology, I hope Francis also makes his way to a smaller but equally impressive Roman necropolis in a northeastern corner of Vatican City. As I described in my book, it was unearthed in 2003 when the Vatican was trying to build a 900-unit underground car park (and thus became a bone of contention, so to speak.)
It seems rather incredible, but previous popes have not really taken guided tours of these fascinating places. At most, they managed quick visits.
Part of the problem is that a pope’s time is no longer his own. From Day 1, he is presented with a long catalogue of requests for audiences, a to-do list of messages, speeches and liturgies, and proposals for Vatican initiatives.
Much of a modern pope’s calendar has been filled in even before he is elected. This is due in large part to the very active pontificate of John Paul II, who established dozens of annual events that require a papal audience, message or speech. The program has grown by accretion, and it’s probably time to re-evaluate whether all this is really needed.
There are many Italian Catholic groups, for example, that have a standing meeting with the pope. World leaders of any stripe are generally received by popes, no matter how productive or unproductive such encounters may be. It’s logical that Rome parishes host the pope on occasional visits – it is his diocese, after all – but does a pope really have to visit so many Italian cities? (Pope Benedict made 30 such visits during his reign.)
As I’ve written elsewhere, the format for the “ad limina” visits that take up so much of a pope’s working day could probably use an overhaul, in order to make them less formal and more productive, and increase the involvement of lay faithful.
Francis seems willing to take a new look, and create some space for different types of encounters. He is wisely beginning by familiarizing himself with his new environment, and he doesn’t have to go far afield – the tomb of Peter lies about 200 feet from his residence in the Vatican guest house.
In coming days, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wander over to the nearby Vatican shelter for the homeless, where Missionaries of Charity provide meals and housing for more than 70 people each day.