The Mass, which is promoted by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization and the Religious Sisters of Mercy, first became available in 2012 as part of the Year of Faith which had been called for by Benedict XVI. Due to its popularity, it was decided that the Mass would continue after the Holy Year had concluded in 2013.
In an interview with ZENIT, Father Geno Sylva, an official of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, explained that the Year of Faith “was Benedict’s way of reenergizing, reinvigorating the Mission of the New Evangelization, to get the entire universal Church behind it.”
“The fact that there were so many English-speaking pilgrims coming,” he said, “it was decided to continue this Mass after the Year of Faith as a perpetual grace of the Year of Faith, to provide people the opportunity of celebrating Mass in their native language as they make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle Peter.”
Fr. Sylva noted the strong turnout at the weekly Mass, which he attributes to Pope Francis. “So many pilgrims are coming. They’re drawn by his magnetic personality and his powerful words and his spirituality.”
The large number of priest concelebrants who often join him in celebrated the Mass, he added, offers a witness to the pilgrims, many of whom are unaccustomed to seeing so many priests in on place. These are priests, he said, who come “from all over the world: different religious orders, diocesan priests, priests who work here at the curia, priests who are studying.”
One of the highlights of the Mass for Fr. Sylva is the opportunity to encounter other pilgrims, after the Mass has ended, on the front steps of the ancient church. “For me personally, as a priest, what I find so touching is that there is probably not a Sunday that goes by [where] there’s not an elderly couple who’s come to Rome to celebrate a 50th anniversary, or there’s a beautiful couple that are newlyweds, who are here on their honeymoon, or there’s a mother and a father who’ve come to Rome to make a prayer for the recovery of their child.”
Fr. Sylva recounted one occasion where he was approached by Italian pilgrims who did not speak or understand English. “We didn’t understand any of the Mass,” they told him in Italian, “but we felt so close to God. It was such a wonderful celebration because we were sitting next to people who spoke English, and yet it was the same God and the same Scripture, and the same Eucharist.”
“For me those testimonies are so touching and so inspiring,”he said. “And then after the Mass to see, on the front steps, people from all over the world just introducing themselves to each other. And here it is we recognize that we are a universal Church, that as sisters and brothers we are never alone in faith – even if they can’t speak the language.”
“These are moving occasions of prayer and spirituality that I’ve witnessed,” he said.
The church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, where the Mass is celebrated, is also significant for those who have a devotion to the newly-canonized Saint John Paul II, who dedicated the church as a shrine of the Divine Mercy, the feast he himself established. His relics, along with those of Saint Faustina, are housed in the church.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for us to encounter and engage pilgrims, to speak to them about the New Evangelization, the reasons for it,” Fr. Sylva said, “but also the important role that Divine Mercy has in the mission of the New Evangelization. It’s a blending together of our Eucharistic centeredness in Christ in the highest form of Grace, to be able to discuss with them and allow them that opportunity to pray for Divine mercy.”
“The liturgy itself, and the mystery of the liturgy, is so central to the New Evangelization,” Fr. Sylva said. Through this initiative, we are “welcoming people to a celebration of the Holy Mass in such a way that we’re reinforcing the centrality of the Eucharist in our spiritual journeys of faith.”