It was a very busy weekend for Pope Francis, but just a prelude to the upcoming events of Holy Week.

Saturday night he led a prayer vigil with young people in St. Mary Major Basilica, the vigil of the XXXII World Youth Day which is celebrated Palm Sunday in the world’s dioceses. Young people are now and will remain high on the papal agenda leading up to the October 2018 synod that will focus on youth.

Francis also referred to the next World Youth Day in Panama in 2019 and disconcerted not a few in St. Mary’s Basilica when he said, “I don’t know if it will be me, but the pope will be in Panama!” Then, in a reference to his age of 80,“At my age, we (older people) are about to pass away.”

Young people have been contacted for input for the 2018 synod, and the Holy Father noted this at the vigil, saying he wanted to involve not just Catholics but all youth, agnostics and atheists included, telling them, “the future is in your hands.”

On Palm Sunday, under clear skies and a brilliant sun, Pope Francis presided at Mass in St. Peter’s Square amid very tight security with streets adjacent to the square closed to traffic, no parking allowed, army vehicles and armed soldiers clearly in view and airport style security for those entering the square. At Mass, the World Youth Day cross was passed from youth of Krakow, host of the 2016 WYD, to youth from Panama for the 2019 celebration.

In his homily, the Pope spoke of World Youth Day and Holy Week and Easter but also, notably, about all who suffer, “those who suffer from slave labor, family tragedies and diseases … who suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike.”

After Mass, at the Angelus, Pope Francis remembered the victims of Friday’s attack on Stockholm and then, after being handed a note, spoke out in condemnation of the terror attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that killed dozens and injured at least 80. He expressed condolences to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Church and the entire Egyptian nation. “May the Lord,” said the Pope, “convert the hearts of the people who are sowing terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make and traffic weapons.”

Francis is scheduled to visit Cairo at the end of this month.

And now, for one of my favorite stories, an annual post on this page….


It is time once again to tell you the marvelous story of how a sailor from Liguria saved an obelisk from falling and extracted a papal promise for an honor for his native city.

In 1586, Pope Sixtus V, wanting to complete the design of St. Peter’s Square, ordered architect Domenico Fontana to place in the center of the square a giant Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome in 39 A.D. by Emperor Caligula. For centuries it has been in the emperor’s circus in what today is Vatican City, and moving the obelisk from that point to the center of St. Peter’s Square would be a Herculean task.

The obelisk had been in the Vatican gardens, near the first Constantinian basilica (dedicated in 326), and had lain there, forgotten, for many years under layers of mud and stagnant water. Giacomo della Porta was asked by Sixtus V to recover the obelisk and, struck by its majestic beauty, the Pope asked that engineers study a project to raise the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square.

On September 10, the day the 85-foot high, 350-ton obelisk was transported by 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the Italian Riviera area of San Remo-Bordighera, was in the square.

The head engineer had told Pope Sixtus that total silence was needed to raise the obelisk, once it was in the square. Thus, the Pope announced to the huge crowd that had assembled to watch the manoeuver that anyone who spoke during the delicate and risky operation would face very severe penalties.

As work was underway, the ropes used to raise the obelisk gave signs of fraying and weakening and the obelisk itself began to sway. However, Benedetto, as a sailor, knew what the problem was – and how to solve it and so, notwithstanding the pontiff’s ultimatum, he shouted “water on the cords, water on the cords.” The head engineer realized the sailor was right, the cords were watered, they became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised, without further danger to anyone.

Instead of punishing the audacious sailor, Pope Sixtus rewarded him by giving Benedetto and his descendants the privilege of providing the Vatican with the famous Ligurian palms used for Holy Week ceremonies in the Vatican. And so it has been for over four centuries, with only a few brief interruptions.

Known as parmureli, the leaves from date palm trees in San Remo and Bordighera are woven and braided into intricate sculptures, some only inches high, while others are perhaps two meters high. Some years, more than 200 of the six-foot high parmureli are sent to the Vatican from Liguria for Palm Sunday – for the Pope, cardinals, archbishops, etc. (photos

Many years ago, when the parmureli arrived by sea, the ship that carried them placed one of the palm leaf sculptures on the mast that usually displayed a flag. The palm “flag” thus gave that vessel from San Remo-Bordighera precedence into the port over all other vessels.

Click here to watch my “Joan’s Rome” video about the obelisk;