By Vatican News staff writer
It was at 8.30 am on New Year’s Day, 1968 that Pope Paul VI went to the Vatican’s Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital in Rome “to celebrate Holy Mass in the chapel, visit the sick children and address his words of comfort to them," reported the Vatican’s newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
A recently found unpublished video, retrieved from the archives of the hospital, testify to what happened there. "This exciting historical document underlines once again the strong emotional and spiritual bond that all the popes have had with the Pope's hospital, and more with the hospitalized children,” said current Bambino Gesù Hospital president, Mariella Enoc.
In the Hospital Chapel, Paul VI found 30 little patients waiting for him. The Super 8 black-and-white film shows about twenty children in their beds surrounded by the officials, doctors, the sisters of the Daughters of Charity congregation, the chaplain and staff of the hospital.
Like Jesus amid children
In his homily at Mass, he thanked the staff for their commitment to sick children and then turned to the parents and families of the patients, and to the children themselves. Underscoring the hospital’s mission to treat sick children, the Holy Father wondered if there could be an institution more loved by the pope. He said he felt like a father to each of them there and that he would like to be the presence of "Jesus among the children". Touched with emotion, Pope Paul VI expressed his affection to the children and recalled the predilection of Jesus who embraced their “little and lively peers in the fullness of their health”. Noting the suffering due to sickness of the children in the hospital, he said, this means that the affection of his visit “grows and becomes profound tenderness”.
A plea to the little ones
The Vatican newspaper commented that while the Pope brought the sick children toys, he also came to ask them a gift. “The Pope came to ask your tears as an offering, namely, your pain, distress and of this state of affairs that makes intelligent and lively beings sad,” the Pope said. “Do you want to offer such a great pain and recite some prayers for me, for my intentions, especially for peace that is so close to my heart?” he asked.
Pope Paul VI explained to the children that if they are suffering, there are many others who are even sadder, such as those who live in war-torn regions, often left alone, deprived of assistance, and perhaps even injured or sick. Visibly moved, he made an earnest plea to them. He asked, “Will you pray too? So will you make this gift to the Pope? Will I be right if I say, ‘The children of Bambino Gesù offer their pain, sufferings and prayers for the great cause of peace?’” The prayer of children, he explained, will surely move the heart of God and hasten this gift. This is because the voice of the sick little ones reflects "the power of the innocent pain" of Jesus, which saves us.
"Hence, children," the Pope concluded, “you are giving the Pope a priceless gift, if you promise to offer your sufferings and prayers for peace in the world, for the many children who suffer like you, even much more, and for all the men who (...) are against each other, so that they may become brothers and good people drawn to the peace of the Lord”.
The Vatican newspaper reported that the Mass ended with a recitation of a peace prayer composed by Pope Paul VI himself, who presented each child with a souvenir. Afterwards, he returned to the Vatican leaving behind “toys and sweets" for the children.