While Romans slept and darkness still covered the eternal city, Pope Francis left the Vatican this morning to pray in private before the statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for three different categories of people.
He arrived at the foot of the statue at 6:15 a.m. and prayed, first, for “the miracle of cure for the many sick people” in today’s world.
Though the Vatican statement that broke the news did not say so, he will likely have included the countless numbers of people suffering from Covid-19 in the world today in his prayer. There have been nearly 265 million confirmed cases reported in the world and over 5.2 million deaths, with a 79 percent increase in new weekly cases in Africa and a 21 percent increase in the Americas.
He prayed next for “healing for those suffering greatly from wars and the climate crisis.” In recent times, Francis has prayed for those living amid armed conflicts in places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ukraine and Myanmar, and for those suffering from the effects of climate changes in places like Madagascar and India.
Finally, he invoked Our Lady’s intercession “for the conversion and the melting of the hearts of stone of those who build walls to distance themselves from the sufferings of others.” He had spoken out strongly about the building of walls and barbed wire fences to prevent migrants from entering countries during his recent visit to Cyprus and Greece. Such barriers have been erected in Hungary, Poland and many other places.
The tradition of praying at the Spanish Steps dates back to at least 1953, when Pius XII prayed at the foot of the bronze statue on Dec. 8, the feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
The statue was erected in 1857 following the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854. The dogma asserts that “from the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin.”
The feast day is a national holiday in Italy, and thousands of people usually gather at the Spanish Steps to be present for this public act of veneration by the pope. That was not possible in 2020, however, because of the national restrictions provoked by the pandemic, and so Francis went there to pray early morning last year.