As we had a free morning, some of the group took the opportunity of visiting more of the city sights. Brett and I slept-in and had a relaxing start instead; we have a couple of extra days to do the sightseeing. Part of the relaxing morning was prepping clothes for the Mass at St Peter’s. We had to request both the iron and the ironing board specifically – initially they only brought the board – but when it did arrive, it was a comedy of errors.
The steam iron had a badly frayed power cord and was partly held together with gaffer tape. (I kid you not!) The ironing board was little better; the cover, the padding beneath it and the board itself being handed over separately and the legs on the board not really wanting to stay in any of the housings. Kind of a self-assembly challenge. I don’t mind a challenge, but the iron did not look like something I wanted to fill with water and then plug into mains electricity, so I decided my shirt would do un-ironed and gave the whole thing up as a bad job.
The coach ride to the Vatican was time-consuming, but necessary – you don’t want a choir about to perform, walking through the heat of a Roman afternoon dressed all in black – but it took us at least twice as long to reach St Peter’s than if we had walked it.
At the Vatican it was the usual performance-day story of “hurry up and wait!” We hung about in the shade of the colonnade around St Peter’s Square for a while – and nearly lost a few people who had wandered off when we were suddenly escorted towards the cathedral. Then there was the waiting under the stern eye of the Swiss Guard while the Roman Police checked everyone’s bags, a walk to the next check point where we waited some more until clearance was given, then finally through a courtyard and into a back door of the Basilica.
I don’t know whether it has been renovated or cleaned recently, but the south side of St Peter’s Basilica looks so clean and fresh compared to the slightly weathered east front, the view you usually see from the square.
Once inside, we had an hour free to visit the cathedral before the chorus needed to gather ready to sing for mass at 17:30, so Brett and I strolled around to see what was to be seen. The building is remarkably well lit by natural light inside: Those Renaissance architects knew what they were doing.
From the outside, you perhaps don’t appreciate the scale of the building; it is truly monumental architecture. Standing beside the plinth of one of the columns on the familiar East Façade gives you a sense of it. It helps you gain perspective as you look upwards to the completely decorated interior ceilings and the great carvings which line the basilica. Every surface of the interior is adorned with some work of art, whether it is the polished marble designs which cover most surfaces, the sculpted tombs and saints, or the painted scenes in the chapels. Everywhere you look there is outstanding craftsmanship.
Towards the end of our free time, Brett and I were sitting in the South Transept and all around us the faithful were praying. Not being a religious person myself, I found myself wondering what the experience of prayer is like for a believer. Are they looking inwards through meditation, or outwards, actively asking questions or worshipping in their minds? Do they believe they receive direct responses or some immediate divine inspiration – or are the deity’s mysterious ways more deep than that and, having cast their question or request into the void, they walk away and look for signs in the world around them to give them an answer? I would have loved to have asked – maybe conduct a survey of the people around us – but that was not our purpose for being there.
The chorus duly gathered at the appointed hour… and waited around for another twenty minutes before moving to an area to form up into rows. It turned out that Italian (dis)organisation was in full flow again here; they had “forgotten” how large the chorus was and so had not reserved the front pews for us. As a result the singers were squeezed into the choir stalls around the organ keyboard, which resulted in a good section of the chorus being unable to see Jo, the musical director, conducting. Luckily, Constanza can think on its feet and one of the singers on the edge of the sightline took on the role of watching her and beating time for those out of view.
I have never been to a catholic mass before and I suppose I was surprised how informal it was compared to what I had expected. Despite being presided over by a Cardinal – the Archpriest of St Peter’s, no less – there was very little incense in the air and a shorter procession than the preceding service, which we had watched depart. Two of the three altar boys arrived late, slipping into position after the mass had begun and then fidgeting in the corner behind the priests’ lines of sight throughout.
Nevertheless, the movements of the cardinal and his attendant priests were all quite ritualistic. After the blessing of the communion wafers and the wine, they all bowed low before them – I had forgotten that Catholic doctrine is that the wafer actually becomes the body of Christ – and there was chanting and genuflecting aplenty.
I found myself sitting next to an elderly Italian lady. She did not look to be of great means, but was certainly devout. Apart from when the service required us to greet our neighbours, we did not exchange more than a wordless enquiry about the availability of my seat, and yet I found myself imagining her life story and wondering at the role her faith played in it. Looking quite careworn, she did not seem joyful in her service to heaven, rather that she was going through a familiar, possibly comforting, ritual; more of a routine or habit. Did it bring her happiness? Or was she just keeping up her dues in this world to ensure her the promised happiness in the next? How would her life have been different if she had been raised to question and seek one’s own truth?
I skipped donating during the collection; looking at the magnificence of the building, I didn’t think the Catholic Church was much in need of my contribution. Being interested in novel experiences though, I did go forward to take communion from the Cardinal. As a gay atheist, I don’t expect my soul can be any further damned from the Catholic perspective by participating unbaptised in the ritual. Sure enough, there was no lightning bolt to strike me dead – nor any divine revelation after accepting the host, merely a tasteless, somewhat chewy wafer that stuck to the roof of my mouth while I returned to my seat. It was, perhaps inevitably, anticlimactic.
The pieces the chorus were expected to perform differed from those they had been told they would need, which resulted in an entirely ad hoc Alleluia, signed to the chorus as intervals by Jo in her conducting, and the skipping of the last piece they had prepared. Once the mass was over, there was some applause from the congregation and the chorus came forward for pictures in front of the altar. Unfortunately my chosen seating worked against me as I ended up right at the front of the aisle where my lens wasn’t wide enough to capture the entire group in one shot. Uh-oh, #PhotographerFail
When that was all done, the group trouped back down the nave and, after a little bit of dickering with the security guards, got to sing the final piece they had prepared on the steps of the basilica – again, too far forward for me to capture them in song, but surrounded by cameraphoning tourists in awe. They do make a very nice sound, after all.`
From there, it was back to the underground car park to wait for the coach and then the halting trip back to the hotel to change ready for dinner. Most of the group had been booked into a restaurant someone had found and liked earlier in the trip (ironically not far from St Peter’s Square…)
We rather overwhelmed the family-run restaurant, with what looked like a father-and-son team running front-of-house and momma supervising the kitchen. Consequently service was not the fastest, but the food and drink were good and there was much enjoyment had. A fair amount of alcohol was consumed by some and, late in the evening, there was inevitably singing. Unlike the LGMC though, Constanza can still hold a tune when drunk, so it wasn’t nearly as painful an experience as I’d feared!
Towards 11pm we left those of the group who still had energy to party and walked back to the hotel. We went via St Peter’s Square for me to get some night-time pictures of the Basilica. It turns out the square is closed to the public (and patrolled by police) at night. Well, I suppose you wouldn’t want all those homeless sleeping under the nearby porticos to mess up the centre of Christ’s mission on earth by seeking succour there…