Photo: Pope Francis blows out candles on birthday cake presented to him during an audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 14. The pope turns 77 on Dec. 17. The audience was for families assisted by the Santa Marta, a maternal and pediatric clinic located at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

By Kerri Lenartowick

ROME  (CNA/EWTN News) – On the morning of Dec. 14, Pope Francis paid a visit to patients and workers of the pediatric dispensary of Santa Marta, who surprised the Pontiff with a small birthday celebration.

Pope Francis, who turns 77 on Dec.17th, expressed his gratitude for the gesture. After they had finished singing the traditional Italian birthday song, the Pope blew out the candles, and said, “Thank you for the love you have, the joy of these children, the gifts, the cake… It was beautiful!”

The visit to the clinic included time to greet many of the children and their parents individually, as well as workers and volunteers. Later, Pope Francis went over to the Paul VI audience hall in order to accommodate a larger meeting.

One of the mothers whose child receives care from the clinic welcomed the Holy Father.  “Your presence, Holy Father, is a surprise for us and always gives us moments of tenderness and joy,” said Elizabeth, who is originally from Peru.

“We know how much you love the children, especially those who need it most.”

“At the dispensary we feel especially privileged because we know that we are in your heart and on your mind. And we are happy because, every day, you help us to meet Jesus,” she explained.

Sister Antonietta Collachi, the head of the clinic, also greeted Pope Francis, describing the work of the institution as a “symphony of love.”

The pediatric dispensary of Santa Marta was founded by Pope Pius XI in 1922, “with over 90 years of solidarity spent in serving those people who too often seem invisible to the eyes of the world,” she recounted.

The Vatican clinic provides medical care in the form of check-ups and consultations, as well as psychological support.

The clinic’s work, noted Sister Collachi, “is made possible thanks to the voluntary work of doctors – pediatricians, obstetricians, sonographers, dermatologists, dentists – and the many workers who offer their time, passion, and tenderness.”

“Divine Providence ensures that we do not lack His support, by multiplying charity every day, in our hands.”

“We work to globalize solidarity and love, rather than indifference and selfishness,” continued Sr. Collachi.

“In this time of Advent, pregnant with hope for the coming of the Messiah, once more we turn our gaze to a family in need, abandoned by men to their fate, but we see above all the trust in the will of the Heavenly Father and cultivate an awareness that in His design is imprinted the touch of an artist completing a masterpiece,” she concluded.

Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who also visited the clinic in 2005.