When you want to make an announcement that goes right from where you’re speaking to all around the world, what do you call it?
If you’re Pope Francis, you call it the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing. And we will all receive it on Easter morning, live from St. Peter’s Basilica. The title means “to the city and the world.”
While the blessing attached to this message comes from the pope, the title itself predates the Vatican and any pope, including St. Peter. It comes to us from imperial Rome and was the standard proclamation form. Such as “Be it known ‘to the city’ (of Rome, since to Romans that was the center of everything) and ‘to the world’ that …” Not something to be trifled with.
When the church took over some of the forms of imperial Rome, such as its organizational structure, it also took on some of its legal forms. Today, you can find the words “Urbi et Orbi” carved on the wall of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Why? Because this basilica was, and remains, the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome, the pope. The Lateran Basilica, as a church, dates to A.D. 324 and stands on land that once belonged to the Laterani family.
Given by the pope, the “Urbi et Orbi” proclamation, along with an accompanying papal message, includes a plenary (meaning “absolute” or “complete”) indulgence from sins. (There are certain conditions connected with receiving the indulgence — or pardon from the consequences of sin. These include the sacrament of reconciliation, praying for the pope’s intentions and receiving Eucharist. (For more on that, visit ewtn.com/catholicism/devotions/conditions-13362.)
Dates to 13th Century
The first pope to officially offer the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing was Pope Gregory X, who was pope from 1246 to 1271.
The themes for these messages from the pope depend on the occasion for which they are given. Each pope gives an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing, usually an accompanying message, when he is selected as pope. Then he delivers one on each Christmas and Easter. However, a pontiff can deliver an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing whenever he feels one is needed. This is called an extraordinary “Urbi et Orbi” blessing.
This was the case on March 27, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pope Francis did not make his blessing from the usual spot — the loggia (balcony) of St. Peter’s Basilica. Instead, he stood outside the basilica on the steps of St. Peter’s Square and spoke about fear and about trusting in the Lord. He prayed: “Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.”
Only the pope may give the Urbi et orbi blessing. No other bishop is allowed to do so, though a bishop may certainly bless the people of his own diocese.
Not Always From St. Peter’s
While the pope now delivers Urbi et Orbi blessings from St. Peter’s Basilica, the other three major basilicas in Rome have also been used in the past for this blessing. And past pontiffs would give the blessing more often than twice a year. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Urbi et Orbi blessing was also given at St. Peter’s on Holy Thursday and the feast of SS. Peter and Paul (June 29); at the Lateran on Ascension Thursday and at St. Mary Major on the Assumption feast (Aug. 15).
The pope can also deliver the blessing during jubilee celebrations, such as St. John Paul II did for the Holy Year of 2000, giving the blessing on both Dec. 13, 1999, and Dec. 31, 2000.
All Can Receive Blessing by TV, Internet
While the original Urbi et Orbi blessing only extended to people who were there in person to hear it, things have changed. The Vatican has determined that, since this blessing is intended for “all sons and daughters” of the church, it may also be received by those who are not present with the pope in Rome at the time of the blessing.
In 1985, St. John Paul II allowed anyone watching the blessing on television or hearing it on the radio, and who would “piously follow” the blessing, could receive the indulgence. In 2013, Pope Francis extended that to those following the blessing on the internet as well.
So this Easter Sunday, April 17, you can follow the Urbi et Orbi blessing at 5 a.m. (noon in Rome). (Both EWTN TV and the Vatican News Youtube channel will broadcast: youtube.com/user/vatican.)
(If you are interested, you can watch an 85-year-old blessing given by Pope Pius XI on March 28, 1937, at youtube.com/watch?v=_OgoQk37rQU.)