After sunrise on Sunday, 95 pilgrims from Kansas entered the best-known church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica, filed past Renaissance sculptures and paintings several stories tall and after that descended many steep stair-steps under the marble floors.
They entered Sepulcrum Sancti Petri Apostoli – the Sepulcher of St. Peter. Around them lay many marble tombs of past popes.
They got down on their knees as Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme said the 2,000-year-old sacrament of the Mass.
Four hours later, they would stand among many thousands of other people with their flags and banners. And with those thousands, they would watch in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis delivered his weekly Angelus, a blessing – and a blunt assessment about how some people in the world treat the poor.
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But in St. Peter’s tomb at 7 in the morning in Rome was only the Kansans, and except for Kemme, none of them were figures of authority or newsmakers. And the theme of the readings, and the homily by Father John Hay concerned humbleness, and how God not only loves the humble but notices the smallest among us.
Jim Biehler, the president at Suburban Landscape Management in Wichita, read a story from the “First Book of Kings.” The prophet Elijah on a journey asked a desperately poor woman to give him water and bake him a meal cake, and when she said it was all she and her son had, he told her the Lord gives food to the hungry, and the Lord sets captives free. And that woman and her son ate for a year on what she baked that day.
Hay read the widow’s mite story from the “Gospel of Mark,” about Jesus noticing the Pharisees giving rich gifts to the treasury, while the woman gave poor coins – all she had. A key point of this, Hay said: The Lord noticed. It is not only that God appreciates giving, Hay said. “It is that Jesus noticed that woman,” Hay said. “God always notices all of us.” No matter how humble in life we are, he said.
Pope Francis, hours later, built upon this theme from that reading as he spoke from a high Vatican window. He told the Kansas pilgrims and the thousands of others standing before him: When faced with the needs of our neighbor, he said, we are called upon to give something indispensable to us – and not something surplus.
Kemme at the Mass prayed that Father Emil Kapaun of Kansas would someday enter the canon of saint. On Monday, Kemme will walk to a building next door to St. Peter’s Square and make the case for Kapaun’s sainthood to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.