The feast of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday in Italy and most of Europe. When I lived there as a student, December 8th was always a special day because it was a holiday, because it reminded me that Advent had indeed begun, and because it was also the day for a special gathering with the Holy Father at the Spanish Steps. In true Roman fashion, it was a day to be with family, in whichever form that came. One of my friends would open her doors and host our group of friends for lunch at her downtown apartment. Afterward we would walk to Piazza di Spagna to wait for Pope Benedict to arrive for the traditional prayer service at the foot of the monument to the Immaculate Conception.
Today Pope Benedict once again made his visit to Our Lady. In his homily, he reflected on the earlier reading from the Book of Revelation that speaks of a woman clothed with the sun crying out in labour pains while a giant dragon stands before her, waiting to devour the child she will deliver. Pope Benedict said the figure of the woman represents both Mary and the Church, while the dragon represents the evil and hatred that tries to destroy the Church. Despite the trials and persecutions, the Church has endured throughout history "is supported by the light and strength of God" and will always end up victorious, he said
The biggest dangers facing the Church, however, come from inside the Church, according to the Holy Father. He told the faithful, "The only danger the Church can and should fear is the sin of her members", which is why the faithful turn to Mary for help living a holy, Christian life.
European Catholics are facing a time of high economic uncertainty and uncertainty, both of which take their toll on the human spirit. Mary gives hope, "which we really need, especially at this difficult time for Italy, Europe and different parts of the world," he said.
After the brief ceremony in Piazza di Spagna, the Holy Father blessed a basket of white roses which were placed at the foot of the column on his behalf, following a tradition that began with Popes Pius XII and John XXIII. (The former began sending a basket of flowers every year to be placed at the base of the column. In 1958, John XXIII began actually going to the Spanish Steps to deliver the flowers himself.)
As the sun was just beginning to set over the Spanish Steps, casting an warm glow over Our Lady, Pope Benedict got back into his Popemobile and returned to the Vatican, leaving the Roman faithful to continue their celebration of the feast day.