On October 12, the members of the Synod on Synodality made a pilgrimage to the St Sebastian catacombs, the burial place of three early Christian martyrs. There they were given a booklet to be used for a prayer service which they held in the catacomb. This booklet included the text of The Pact of the Catacombs.
The Pact of the Catacombs was another very little-known event held on November 16, 1965. On that occasion, around 40 bishops who were attending Vatican Council II had also made a pilgrimage, that time to the catacombs of Domitilla. Most of them came from Latin America but there were a few European ones too. They celebrated mass in the underground basilica and committed themselves to adopt a way of life that reflected a poor Church. They also vowed to make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry. Later on, the document was passed on to the other bishops and it soon collected 500 signatures.
Pope St John XXIII wanted Vatican II to make the Church more attentive to the poor and wanted this to be done by the Church itself becoming poor, thus showing the way. Inspired by the words of Pope John, these bishops wanted to show the way and to lead others to the transformation of the Church.
On its 50th anniversary, the Pact and its contents were remembered. Mgr Betazzi, emeritus bishop of Ivrea and the last survivor of those who had signed the Pact, commented: “God with his grace gave us a pope like Francis, who without having signed the Pact, already led this kind of life and had experience of a simple Church, a poor Church, a Church very close to the poor.” (Bishop Betazzi died this year on July 16, aged 99.)
The pope’s simplicity can also be seen from the way he talks, the way he deals with people and, above all, from how he made the poor his preferential option
Cardinal Walter Kasper concurred: “His (Pope Francis’s) programme is to a high degree what the Catacombs Pact was.”
This was not without reason. The simplicity of Pope Francis was seen on the very first night of his election. Travelling back to the hostel, rather than using the papal limousine he joined the other cardinals in their coach; he renounced to the red shoes popes usually wore; he prefers a small car. Even the liturgical vestments he uses are simple.
His simplicity can also be seen from the way he talks; from the way he deals with people and, above all, from how he made the poor his preferential option. All this comes as a challenge to the whole Church and, especially, to its ministers.
Ours are very difficult times for the Church, especially in our western world. The number of those losing their faith and leaving the Church is increasing every day. The paedophile scandal has done the Church a lot of harm and damaged its credibility. By leading a simple life Church ministers could help win back some credibility.
Pope Francis said: “I want a missionary Church. I want a Church of the poor that goes out to the poor.” After all, our Lord lived in a simple way, talked in a simple way, and loved the poor more than anybody else. The more Church ministers become Christlike, the more they become signs of the Kingdom and the more they make the Church credible.