It isn’t until I actually see the procession of 38 new metropolitan archbishops walking up the center aisle at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the start of the Pallium Mass a little after 9:30 Tuesday morning, and hear the cheers from pilgrims of the 26 countries represented—Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe—followed by the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, that it really hits me: This is the greatest visible display of the Church’s catholicity that I have ever seen, and perhaps may ever see.
It is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. My daughter Sarah and I are in Saint Peter’s Basilica, on the very spot where St. Peter stretched out his hands and gave his life, where his bones remain to this day. The unique role that Jesus gave to Peter among the Apostles is mirrored today in the role of the Bishop of Rome among these archbishops, who are gathered for a special celebration of their pastoral role and unity with the Pope.
There’s even an Eastern Orthodox delegation here. I didn’t confirm that until later, but I caught my breath during Pope Benedict’s homily, delivered in Italian, at a reference to Constantinople. (My Italian vocabulary is barely into double digits, but I picked up individual words and ideas here and there: references to Peter and Paul, Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, the pallium and the archbishops, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary. The booklet handed out to worshipers has the Italian and English texts of the pope’s Pallium Mass homily ... from 2009. The English text of the 2010 homily is now available online.) My appreciation for Orthodoxy is long-standing and profound, and I feel the pain of the schism deeply. The presence of the delegation from Constantinople at this celebration of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fills me with great joy.
The pallium is a symbol with ecumenical as well as catholic significance, going back to the early centuries of Christendom, and directly related to the Eastern omophor worn by Orthodox and Eastern Catholic bishops. It’s a band of cloth, traditionally made of wool, worn about the neck and shoulders. In the West, the pallium was originally worn only by the bishop of Rome, but by the sixth century popes began conferring it on other bishops. The use of wool was early interpreted as a symbol of the bishop’s role as shepherd, and wool is still used to make the Western pallium of today, which is bestowed by the pope upon metropolitan archbishops.
Not just any wool, either. Pallium wool comes from lambs presented to and blessed by the pope on the Feast of St. Agnes (St. Agnes being associated with lambs, of course, because of her name) at the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls (not to be confused with the Church of St. Agnes in Agony at Piazza Navona, where Agnes was martyred). The blessed lambs are raised by Trappist monks, and their wool is woven into pallia by the French order of nuns who oversee St. Agnes Outside the Walls.
Before being conferred by the pope upon new metropolitans, pallia are blessed after Second Vespers on the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and then kept overnight in an alcove over the tomb of St. Peter, where they soak up extra apostolic goodness until the Mass the following morning.
By the time the Mass begins, Sarah and I have been at St. Peter’s for about two and a half hours. Breakfast at our hotel begins at 7:30, but we’re on line in the square by 7am. At that point the line is still short—only a few hundred pilgrims. By the time the security checkpoints open at 8, the line wraps halfway around the circular part of the colonnade.
Our tour guide has humorously warned us that once the Vatican police open the security checkpoint to let people in to a papal Mass, there is a rush to grab the best seats and “religion has nothing to do with it”—there may be pushing, elbows to the ribs, and so on. It’s not actually that bad—only some running after the gates until a Vatican policeman at a secondary check cautions people to slow down. It’s kind of like opening the gates at Disney World, except that instead of mouse ears people are in suits and dresses and such.
The best seats, of course, are not necessarily those closest to the front, but those closest to the center aisle, since everyone wants to be close to the pope as he passes during the processional and recesssional. Alas, the aisle is wider than it used to be, with fewer chairs available in the nave, as a consequence of the disgraceful lapse in Vatican security last Christmas that resulted in Pope Benedict being dragged to the ground by an unbalanced woman in a red sweater who had attempted precisely the same thing the year before, even dressed the same way. How was she even permitted into the basilica again?
Sarah and I settle for a slight compromise in aisle access, taking spots only two seats in from the center in order to be as far to the front as possible. We’re on the right side of the nave, about nine rows back from the front of the cordoned-off section. (With respect to the floorplan of St. Peter’s, we’re next to the third pier from the front, under the statue of St. Philip Neri.)
Seated on our right is an elderly Italian nun who speaks very little English, but takes a warm interest in us, and especially in Sarah. She wants to know where we are from and how Sarah’s name is spelled, and I’m tickled at how pleased she is that we spell it with an h. Like Sarah, she has three brothers and two sisters. She inquires about my esposa, whom I explain is in the U.S., and sends greetings which I convey instantly via text message (Suzanne is awake and texting me, even though it’s about 3am in New Jersey). When I tell her that I write for a Catholic publication and will be writing about this Mass, she emphatically introduces herself as “Sister Oor-sula,” from northern Italy.
Learning that we’re Americans in Rome with our metropolitan archbishop, Sister Ursula proceeds to go through the printed list of archbishops receiving the pallium, picking out the Americans and asking if we know any of them. I try to explain, probably unsuccessfully, that our own metropolitan archbishop already has the pallium and is not receiving it today. After examining Sarah’s holy medals, Sister Ursula promises to pray for Sarah, and Sarah says the same. I believe them both.
At last the Mass begins.
Of course photos are permitted, and, despite a suddenly recalcitrant camera, I manage to get at least one decent shot of Pope Benedict as he passes by and even pauses briefly to greet and shake hands with worshipers on the opposite side of the aisle.
While the homily and other remarks are in Italian, and the readings and prayers of the faithful are in various languages, the bulk of the liturgy is said and sung in Latin, moving me to renewed gratitude that our parish uses as much Latin and liturgical singing as we do. The Latin Gloria is sung as a dialogue between the schola or choir and the assembly, a practice I’ve not witnessed before, but the setting is well-known to Sarah and me, and we sing our part with gusto. Alas, we’ve never learned to sing or even to recite the Creed in Latin, and we follow along as best as we can. (Memo to self: Follow through on long-standing intention to mention singing Creed to parish music director.)
As I see it, while the merits of worship in the vernacular are beyond question, there is also great value in having a common, traditional liturgical tongue, especially in an ever-smaller world when speakers of different languages often worship together. Latin, and along with it the whole heritage of Latin chant, are an indispensable part of the fabric of the Western patrimony. Latin need not be the norm, but all Catholics should be familiar with it.
I was much struck by this years ago watching a not-great movie called One Man’s Hero about the San Patricios, a contingent of mostly Irish and German emigrants to the United States who fought on both sides the Mexican-American War: first for the U.S., then defecting to Mexico. For Irish Catholics, fighting alongside Anglophone Protestants against a Catholic country was surely a cause of cognitive dissonance—a point the movie underscores by depicting a group of Irish soldiers crossing lines into Mexican territory and slipping into a Catholic church alongside Spanish-speaking Mexicans ... where they find the Mass in progress exactly as they’ve known it all their lives. My parish church of St. John’s has a large Spanish community as well as an English community, and while bilingual Masses aren’t the norm, when they occur it’s very helpful to be able to say and sing some parts together as well as alternating between English and Spanish for other parts.
The bestowing of the pallium is awesome. After the names of all the metropolitans are read, one by one they go to kneel before the pope. Once again there are cheers from the assembly. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami draws an especially enthusiastic response, particularly, I think, from many Latinos, and there are distinctive high-pitched ululations for the African archbishops.
I’ve received communion once before at St. Peter’s, last year, at an ordinary Sunday Mass—an overwhelming experience. Today, the crowd is so large, and there’s no room to maneuver out of the rows of chairs, so we have to more or less climb over each other to get to the side aisle. It’s a distraction … and yet here I am receiving the body and blood of Christ together with brethren from all over the world with scores of our apostolic shepherds and our chief shepherd on earth. Of course my union with Christ at any ordinary weekday parish Mass in New Jersey is no less efficacious, but the manifest reality of visible communion with Catholics all over the globe is unique and humbling, something I will be grateful for for the rest of my life.
After the dismissal, a small disappointment. As soon as the recession begins, I see people begin stacking and moving the chairs closest to the aisle—a sensible move, I realize, since it makes more room near the outer barrier for people to get close to the pope. I willingly begin moving the chairs around me to make room for others. But then a nearby nun, attempting to stack one more chair, misaligns the chair legs, and the stack is in danger of toppling. I turn to correct the problem—and when I turn back, the wall of flesh pressed against the barrier has closed, four or five people deep.
“Oh, that’s just not right,” I say aloud to no one in particular. One woman now closer than I am, realizing what happened, says apologetically, “Here, push your way in front of me,” but the crowd is too thick for either of us to attempt any switching of positions. Anyway, pushing isn’t my style. Stuff happens. I’m at the Pallium Mass; what am I going to do, complain?
Instead of still pictures, I decide to try to video the pope’s recession on my iPhone. My position isn’t ideal, and another hand holding up another camera phone is annoyingly prominent in my video at times, but you can clearly see that the pope is right there. Anyway, I’ll have another shot the next day at the general audience.
Immediately after the Mass, I meet up for the first time with a long-time virtual acquaintance who happens to be in Rome—formerly an assistant editor at a magazine who recruited me to write a few pieces, now a seminarian with Opus Dei studying for six weeks in Rome. I introduce him and Sarah, and we find a cafe to grab some lunch and catch up for about an hour. We tell him about our tour so far of Florence, Sienna, Assisi and Rome. He asks Sarah what her favorite part of the tour has been. “You mean other than just now?” she replies immediately. “Amen,” he smiles.
Our day doesn’t end there, but I’ll save the rest of our Peter and Paul pilgrimage (which continues in one way or another for the next two days) for another post.