By Elise Harris
Pope Francis kicked off his 80th birthday on Saturday by having breakfast with a group of homeless from around St. Peter’s and inviting them to Mass – but his giving didn’t stop there.
Throughout the day birthday treats and a special Christmas gift will be given to the poor and needy in soup kitchens and shelters throughout Rome in the name of the Pope in honor of his special day.
Francis started his birthday by welcoming eight homeless people, two women and six men, to his residence in the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse.
Accompanied by Papal Almoner Bishop Konrad Krajewski, the eight individuals come from different nationalities, and included four Italians, two Romanians, one Moldavian and one Peruvian. They had been in the area around St. Peter’s Basilica and the showers under the colonnade when they were invited by Krajewski in the early morning to join the Pope for breakfast.
At 7:15 a.m. Pope Francis came down and met them, greeting each one personally and “affectionately,” according to a Dec. 17 Vatican communique. The homeless then gave the Pope three large vases of sunflowers, which Francis immediately put in the chapel of the Saint Martha house where he celebrates daily Mass.
The group then made their way to the cafeteria for breakfast. Pope Francis sat with his guests and spoke with each of them before offering some typical Argentine sweets and inviting them to attend his 8 a.m. Mass with the resident cardinals in Rome inside the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, Dean of the College of Cardinals, offered a special greeting to the Pope, reminding him of his parents, Mario and Maria Regina Bergoglio, his family and all of the others “who have contributed to your formation.” He also recalled the moment of the conclave and noted that many of the cardinals sat alongside Francis as they elected him to guide the Church “in this important time in history.”
“Today we wanted to celebrate Holy Mass with you, to thank the Lord for having chosen you for this mission and for all the love with which you are carrying it out every day.”
He affirmed their closeness to the Pope, particularly on “this beautiful day of your life,” and assured of their constant prayer before offering a cheer “Ad multos annos,” or “to many years!”
In his homily for Mass, Pope Francis also made his own reference to memory, saying the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew, which recounts the genealogy of Jesus, is an opportunity to pause and remember the graces received.
“This is the meaning of today’s liturgy: the grace of memory. We need to ask for this grace: to not forget.”
Remembering one’s story, their ancestors and the path of faith they have walked is based on love, he said, explaining that to reflect on this “does us good,” since it makes the period of waiting before Christmas even more “intense” and vigilant.
While the long Gospel passage might seem a bit “annoying,” it tells the story of a God who wanted to be with his people to the point of making himself a man like each one of us, Francis said.
“This is today’s grace: to remember,” he said, noting that in the story told in the Gospel we see that it’s both a story of grace, but also of sin.
“Along the path we always find grace and sin…even we, in our lives, find the same thing: moments of great fidelity to the Lord, of joy in service, and some bad moments of infidelity,” he said, but emphasized the fact that these moments of darkness are what make us feel the need for salvation.
When we become aware of our need to be saved, “we confess the faith, we make a confession of faith: ‘I am a sinner, but you can save me, you can carry me forward,” the Pope said, adding that this recognition allows us to go forward “in the joy of hope.”
Francis closed his homily by praying that the Lord would help everyone “to recover this grace of memory.”
The rest of Pope Francis’ special day is set to continue like normal, with various meetings and encounters with both individuals and groups of people.
However, as a special sign honoring the Pope’s birthday, soup kitchens throughout Rome will offer special treats after either lunch or dinner, while in various shelters where homeless stay overnight, guests will be given a bag with an image reminding them of Christmas, as well as a “small gift.”
Pope Francis will likely continue to receive well-wishes throughout the day. As of Saturday morning, he had already received nearly 50,000 birthday messages from around the world via email, as part of a special initiative launched by the Vatican in honor of the big day.
The majority of messages that have already arrived are in the English, Spanish and Italian languages, however, more than 1,000 came in Latin, which the Pope has an impeccable knowledge of.