The informal address is a recent invention in the Church and began on a meaningful date in history.
Each Sunday and Holy Day the Holy Father has a custom of greeting pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square from the window of his study, saying a few words of encouragement, and praying the Angelus (or Regina Caeli, in Easter time) with those present.
It is an informal address that doesn’t require any tickets to attend and is often very brief. What’s interesting is how this short greeting came about and which pope started it.
Oddly enough, the “Sunday” Angelus started on Ash Wednesday, 1959. It was initiated by “Good Pope” John XXIII, the man responsible for opening the Second Vatican Council.
Two Popes in a Pod: John XXIII and Francis
Besides being the beginning of Lent, the day selected for the first Angelus address was February 11, the anniversary of the apparitions at Lourdes. Pope John XXIII made specific mention of that significance, especially since it was also the conclusion of the centenary celebration of the apparitions.
He connected the two, saying, “even the beginning of Lent is a reminder of Lourdes: for the Madonna first appeared on the last day of Carnival, and in subsequent manifestations the motive of penance was continually returned to … In the eighth appearance on February 27, three times, she repeated with tears: Penance, penance, penance … This is a great teaching that endures for us.”
Pope John XXIII also reminded the Italian pilgrims before him that it was the 30th anniversary of the Lateran Pact, an agreement with Italy that recognized the Vatican as an independent state.
After this first Angelus address John XXIII made only a few scattered Sunday appearances throughout his pontificate. It wasn’t until Pope Paul VI that the Sunday Angelus became an established part of the Holy Father’s activities. Every pope since has continued the tradition, expanding it to include specific addresses to various language groups present. Often the pope will draw the world’s attention to a particular cause of concern and ask the world for an increase in prayers.
At first the address was directed towards those physically present in Saint Peter’s Square, but now in the digital age, it is available to everyone around the world and has become a platform for the pope to speak to his larger flock.