An Italian firefighter places a wreath of flowers on the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, Dec. 8, 2021. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
Pope Francis made an early morning visit on Wednesday to the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna.
The pope made the private visit shortly after 6 a.m. on Dec. 8, days after the Vatican announced that, for the second consecutive year, he would not make his customary public afternoon trip to the site on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception due to the pandemic.
The Vatican said on Nov. 27 that, in place of a public visit, Pope Francis would mark the feast day by asking the Virgin Mary in prayer “to protect the Romans, the city in which they live, and the sick who need Her maternal protection everywhere in the world.”
The Holy See press office said on Dec. 8 that the pope left a bouquet of white roses at the base of the column, before asking for the Virgin Mary’s intercession for the healing of the sick and respite for those affected by wars and the climate crisis.
He also prayed for the grace of conversion for “those who build walls to distance themselves from the pain of others.”
The press office said that the pope left at around 6:20 a.m. and travelled to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where he prayed before the icon of Salus Populi Romani, Mary Protection of the Roman People, before returning to the Vatican shortly after 7 a.m.
After Pope Francis departed the Piazza di Spagna, a firefighter ascended a ladder to place a wreath of flowers over the statue’s arm.
The statue of the Immaculate Conception sits atop a nearly 40-foot high column. It was dedicated Dec. 8, 1857, three years after Pope Pius IX promulgated a decree defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Since 1953, it has been a custom for popes to venerate the statue for the feast day. Pope Pius XII was the first to do so, walking nearly two miles on foot from the Vatican.
Rome’s firefighters are usually in attendance at the prayer, in honour of their role at the 1857 inauguration of the statue. The mayor of Rome and other officials also attend.
In past years, Pope Francis left floral wreaths for the Virgin Mary, one of which was placed on the outstretched arm of the statue by firefighters. The pope also offered an original prayer for the feast day.
As is customary for Marian solemnities, Pope Francis will still lead the Angelus prayer from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 8.