ROME, September 12, 2013 – With the passing of the days the extraordinary nature of the vigil presided over by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on the evening of Saturday, September 7 is becoming ever more perceptible.
First of all, the reason: a day of fasting and prayer to call for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and wherever there is war. With the participation not only of Catholics but of men of every religion and simply “of good will.” Not only in Rome but in many cities of the world.
Then the duration. One cannot recall a public vigil of prayer of four consecutive hours, from sunset to late into the night, in the constant presence of the pope.
Then the silence. Over the entire span of the vigil the recollection of the hundred thousand persons crowding St. Peter's Square and the surrounding areas was intense and emotional. In harmony with the accentuated austerity of the very presence of the pope.
Then, above all, the form that the prayer took on. It began with the rosary, the most evangelical and universal of the “popular” prayers, and with a meditation by Pope Francis. It proceeded with the adoration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It continued with the office of readings - the nocturnal psalmody of the monks - with the reading of passages from Jeremiah, St. Leo the Great, and the Gospel of John. It concluded with the singing of the “Te Deum” and with Eucharistic benediction imparted by the pope.
But perhaps what struck those present the most was the entrance into the square, at the beginning of the celebration, of the Marian icon of “Salus Populi Romani," carried by four halberdiers of the Swiss Guards and preceded by two little girls with bouquets of flowers. The icon was enthroned in front of Pope Francis, who venerated it devoutly. It was a point of reference for the entire vigil, beside the altar.
The dating of this icon of the Mother of God, kept at the Basilica of St. Mary Major and called since the 19th century “Salus Populi Romani," is controversial. It varies from the 7th to the 12th century.
Tradition maintains that it is a copy, painted by the evangelist Luke, of an image of Mary with Child that miraculously appeared in Lydda in a church built by the apostles Peter and John.
First preserved in Byzantium, it is told that the icon arrived in Rome by sea, welcomed by Pope Gregory the Great on the banks of the Tiber.
Cardinal Cesare Baronio, a Church historian, wrote that it was Pope Gregory who brought the icon to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in 590, at the end of a procession to invoke the cessation of one of the worst plagues in the city's history. On that occasion the archangel Michael was seen above the Mole Adriana putting his sword back into its sheath. The plague ended, and the Mole was given the name of Castel Sant'Angelo.
Another plague ended in the 16th century thanks to the intercession of the Madonna depicted on this icon, when St. Pius V carried it in procession to the Basilica of St. Peter.
The Jesuits accompanied their first missions with reproductions of this icon, which they highly venerated.
Pius XII paid homage to it when he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, and again crowned it in St. Peter's in 1954, at the centenary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
John Paul II associated a copy of this icon with the World Youth Day of 2000, in Rome.
And beginning with the one in Cologne in 2005, celebrated by Benedict XVI, all of the following World Youth Days have carried in pilgrimage a copy of the icon of “Salus Populi Romani," together with the Cross.
Pope Francis also wanted it at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last July. After he was elected pope, his first outing was to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, to kneel in prayer in front of this icon.
The image depicted on it is the one called “Odigitria": the Virgin holds in her arms the Child who is looking at her lovingly while with his right hand raised in blessing he seems to be indicating the way whose direction and journey his mother knows well.
What is striking about this icon is the intense gaze of Mary, which invites the viewer to travel the road indicated by the Son. She is looking into the distance, in the direction in which he is pointing. Her right hand, which is holding the Child, repeats the gesture of Jesus and amplifies it.
In the ancient Roman rite, at the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven the icon of “Salus Populi Romani" welcomed at the door of the Basilica of St. Mary Major the icon of Christ “acheropita" (not painted by human hands) kept in the “Sancta Sanctorum” of the pope's residence at the Lateran and carried there in procession. In a sort of dance between the two icons, the Son paid homage to the Mother.
The decision of Pope Francis to place at the center of the vigil for peace this icon of the Mother of God - not a copy of it, but the original - therefore bears within itself all the power of the significance of its history. In it the pope sees the faith of the people of God who for centuries, in all moments of crisis, have gathered around this icon to implore a sign of grace from heaven, because “that which is impossible for men is not impossible for God.”
In the commentary that follows, Father Innocenzo Gargano enters deeply into the meaning of the presence of the icon of “Salus Populi Romani" at the vigil proclaimed by Pope Francis.
Father Gargano, a Camaldolese monk, was prior of the Roman monastery of San Gregorio al Celio, founded by the pope from whom it takes its name, and is a great scholar of the Fathers of the Church and in particular of this illustrious pontiff, to whom the history of this icon is particularly linked.
SALVATION NOT ONLY OF THE ROMANS BUT OF THE WHOLE WORLD
by Innocenzo Gargano
The display of the authentic icon of “Salus Populi Romani" at the conclusion of the fast called for by Pope Francis to obtain from the Lord, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary Mother of God, peace in Syria, in the Middle East, and over the whole face of the earth, has sounded out very many of the faithful.
What could be the meaning of the display of this icon, placed beside the altar and beside the Most Holy Sacrament, with a Pope Francis almost constantly in genuflection?
One can respond only by recalling that an icon can never be reduced to a painting, whatever may have been the artistic genius that produced it, because unlike a simple painting, which invites the gaze of the viewer to verify its harmony and beauty, the icon makes present, in its way, the very person who is represented.
Not only that. But since the icon is charged with the energy of faith that has been imparted to it by all those who in front of it, and thanks to it, have turned their hearts to the Lord, it distributes to all those who approach it with faith that which it has received.
In particular the icon, this icon - recognized by the Church as the occasion of particular “mirabilia Dei" that we generally call "miracles" - reflects, reproduces, and pours into the hearts of those who turn to it with simplicity and total openness to the will of God those same graces with which the Virgin Mother of God was fully graced, according to the measure of faith of each one.
The authentic icon of “Salus Populi Romani" - and therefore not just any reproduction, like those we often carry in our wallets - is charged with all of this. In fact, it bears within itself the heritage of faith of the Christian generations that, urged on by the archetype to which the same icon refers, meaning the Virgin Mother of God, have asked for and obtained through faith: peace, safety, and health as a down payment on the salvation promised to all by Jesus her Son, the Savior.
This is the reason for the particular importance on Saturday, September 7 of the presence and display of the icon of “ Salus Populi," which thus became no longer the down payment of salvation only for the Romans, but for the whole world, at the conclusion of the fast called for and obtained by Pope Francis with the participation of millions of Catholics, Christians, believers and men of good will, lovers of harmony in the world and of peace.
Only the basilica of Monreale, with its marvelous mosaics, could have withstood comparison with the paradisiacal vision of St. Peter's Square at this vigil experienced by peoples of the whole world around the altar and the Word of God, with the Most Holy Sacrament, in the company of the icon, in the presence of the pope.
The mention of Monreale made by Father Innocenzo Gargano in his last lines refers to an absolute masterpiece of Christian art: the basilica erected in the 12th century by the Norman kings in Monreale, on the hills above Palermo, entirely covered on the inside by mosaics that illustrate the whole plan of God for the world and history.
The mosaics at Monreale that illustrate the creation are an artistic and theological pinnacle of the entire cycle. In the first of these depictions, the Spirit of God is splitting the abyss with startling energy, creating "harmony" where before there was chaos.
And it is precisely the original harmony impressed by the wisdom of God on creation and among human beings - contrasted by the intrusion of sin and the killing of Abel, of which wars are the tragic inheritance - that was the first theme of the meditation developed by Pope Francis at the vigil of September 7:
> “And God saw that it was good”
In twelve evocative episodes created in 2013 for TV 2000, the television channel owned by the Italian bishops, Father Innocenzo Gargano and the art historian Sara Magister thoroughly illustrated the letter and spirit of the entire cycle of the mosaics of Monreale.
The twelve episodes, each lasting half an hour, can be viewed at any time on the YouTube channel of TV 2000: