Today, feast of the Visitation, Pope Francis tweeted: Let us learn from the strong and helpful faith of our Mother Mary in order to become living signs of God’s mercy.

On my first visit to the Holy Land, one of the highlights of our trip was an afternoon visit to two lovely shrines not far from Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. We went to the picturesque village of Ein Karem and saw the Church of St. John the Baptist, built over the site where St. John was born, and the Church of the Visitation, built where Mary stayed with her cousin Elizabeth when she was expecting St. John.

We know from St. Luke that, following Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant and that is why she left Nazareth for Ein Karem:

Mary then “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)

Courtyard of the Church of St. John

The Church of St. John

Grotto of birthplace of St. John the Baptist

“Here was born the precursor of the Lord”

Church of the Visitation


It is a time-honored tradition in the Vatican to hold an evening candlelit procession, with the recitation of the rosary, in the Vatican Gardens on the May 31 feast of the Visitation. In past years the lay faithful were invited to join cardinals, including the Pope’s vicar for Vatican City, bishops, priests, men and women religious and Vatican employees in the procession that starts at the Church of St. Stephen of the Abyssinians (named for St. Stephen Protomartyr, which means “first martyr”), just behind the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, and ends at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.

In past years, about 9 p.m., the Pope joined everyone at the Grotto and made a brief address. I have posted several columns in the years that I joined in the procession.

During his pontificate, Pope Saint John Paul II participated in the procession every year until 2002, when his poor health made it impossible.

In 2005, just six weeks after his election, Benedict XVI participated in this celebration for the first time as Pope. In remarks at the grotto at that time, he called attention to the Year of the Eucharist, pointing out that “Mary helps us to discover the mystery of Communion.” Noting that the procession always occurs on the feast of the Visitation, he said that Mary’s trip to see her cousin Elizabeth was, in a sense, “the first Eucharistic procession in history,” adding that the faithful have the same role as the Church “unceasingly welcomes Jesus in the holy Eucharist and carries Him to the world.”

In 2008, that ceremony took place in St. Peter’s Square. It was believed the change was made by the then-new papal master of liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, to allow more faithful to participate. Candles, with durable plastic shields against the wind and a small prayer and song booklet prepared by the Vicariate of Vatican City were placed on each chair for the thousands of religious and lay people, including entire families, who participated in this evocative ceremony.

Cardinal Angelo Comastri, vicar for Vatican City, led the procession of cardinals that year, as he did last year, 2016.

Pope Francis marked the feast of the Visitation in 2013, just months after his election, in St. Peter’s Square. In 2014 he participated in the procession in the Vatican gardens. I could find no record of his participation in 2015 and he was not present for the 2016 commemoration.