St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper: Pew Hymnal
Church: St Peter's Basilica
Location: Vatican City
Date of visit: Thursday, 9 October 2008, 12:00pm

The building

St Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world. Its architects and artisans read like a Who’s Who of the art world: Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Maderno, etc. The church was begun in 1506 as a replacement for the crumbling 4th century Constantine basilica built over the traditional burial spot of St Peter, and was more or less completed by 1626. When you walk into the nave, your sense of size is skewed. It is difficult to understand how large everything is. Some sense of perspective is gained when you look at the lettering at the base of the dome, which reads: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam" etc. (Matthew 16:18 – "Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church"). The letters are no less than six feet high. Among the many priceless artworks are Michelangelo’s Pieta, in a side chapel and protected by bulletproof glass. Aside from the statuary, almost all the artworks are mosaics; for this reason, visitors are allowed to use flash photography. Near the crossing on the right side is displayed the body of Pope John XXIII, in an almost perfect state of preservation 45 years after his death. Some call it a miracle, although Signore Gennaro Goglia, the Pope's embalmer, credits it to the composition of the embalming fluid used, plus a judicious application of wax. Be that as it may, I was taken aback by how short the pontiff looks (John XXIII was 5'6" tall in life). If you visit St Peter’s, be sure to go down into the crypt, where you can see the entrance to St Peter’s tomb and the tombs of many other popes, including John Paul II.

The church

St Peter's is the Pope's cathedral when he exercises his role as Pope (although as Bishop of Rome his seat is at St John Lateran). I don’t think there is a regular parish community, although I suspect that people who live and work in the Vatican and the Vatican area attend mass here regularly. The Basilica is open every day to visitors, and masses and devotions are scheduled at all hours.

The neighborhood

The Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world, a walled enclave surrounded by the city of Rome, approximately 110 acres in size and with a population of around 800. Created by treaty in 1929, Vatican City is strictly speaking not a vestige of what were once called the Papal States; it is, however, all that remains of the Pope's worldly dominions. The area between the Vatican and the Tiber is known as the Borgo, and is an area of quaint shops and fabulous eateries filled with people from all over the world. The major landmark, aside from St Peter’s, is the Castel Sant’Angelo, originally the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian but converted into a fortress by the popes in the 6th century. Opposite the castle is the bridge known as Ponte Sant’Angelo, built by Hadrian in AD 136. It collapsed in 1450 and was subsequently rebuilt using parts of the ancient bridge.

The cast

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, assisted by about 30 to 40 cardinals and approximately 225 bishops, all of whom were already in Rome for the latest synod on sacred scripture.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Mass.

How full was the building?

It was very difficult to estimate the total number of people present. Admission was by ticket. The central nave from the altar to the great doors was full. As well, there were many people in the left side aisle without tickets who were let into the Basilica. A conservative guess would be about 10,000 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We had to go through an airport-like security check before entering. Once inside, there were ushers directing ticket holders to the seating area in the nave.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chair was a standard plastic chair that allowed several breaks from standing for the duration of the two hour mass.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The pre-service was quiet, considering the large number of people present. About 20 minutes before mass actually started, the organist played Bach’s chorale prelude on O Sacred Head, using a cornet stop for the melody in the right hand. The choir sang several motets that sounded like they were composed by Domenico Bartolucci, director of the choir of the Sistine Chapel from 1956 to 1997. Considering the fact that the choir and organ were about three city blocks away from the nave, it sounded relatively clear – plus it was "gently" miked.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirtus Sancti. Pax vobiscum. Spoken by Pope Benedict.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

An elaborately decorated booklet containing all the prayers and music. The Gregorian chants were written in four line chant notation, which purists consider easier to read than the modern five line notation. The mass was in Latin with the Italian translation printed beside it. The intercessions included prayers in seven different languages.

What musical instruments were played?

The Basilica's grand pipe organ, built in 1954 by the Tamburini firm and refurbished in 1962. The pipes occupy two identical cases, with a four-manual console sitting in front of the north case. A smaller portable console can be connected via coaxial outlets at various points around the Basilica.

Did anything distract you?

The biggest distraction was the behaviour of many people who stood on their chairs as the Pope and procession entered and left. Many people were elbowing each other in order to get "their" picture of the Pope. They behaved like paparazzi. One Italian lady in front of me tried to get people to sit down without any success. At length she cried out "Shame!" in English but with a heavy Italian accent.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a formal Catholic high mass with incense and all the rest. The booklet encouraged the assembly to join in the sung parts with the choir. The Pope actually sat off to the side for the scripture readings, homily and post communion prayers, instead of in the front of the altar. A deacon chanted the gospel in Latin.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Pope Benedict is a good speaker and can preach in as many as eight languages. However, he reads all his texts and never raises his voice or engages in emotive hand waving. He remained seated in his chair. The only annoying thing is that periodically he coughed right into the microphone. (I heard him speak in 2006 as well and he had the same cough then.)

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His Holiness referred to the day's reading from the Book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, one of the Apocrypha), saying that those who intend to follow the Lord must be prepared to face trials and suffering. He traced the life of Pius XII and pointed out that in contrast to the criticism of some who say that Pius ignored the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, he in fact secretly aided many Jews and championed the cause of persecuted people through many charitable works. Pope Benedict even quoted Golda Meir’s praise of Pius XII while she was Israel’s foreign minister. He then mentioned several of Pius' many encyclicals and reminded us that it was Pius who in 1950 pronounced the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Holy Father's thought-provoking homily on the war years and Pius XII. I was wondering what I would have done in his place. Would I have spoken out more emphatically or worked behind the scenes? Also, the music with the glorious amount of reverb in such a large space was heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

As mentioned above, the worst thing was the behavior of people standing on chairs, jockeying for position to take a picture and see the Pope. Not a very dignified start and end to the mass. It looked like a free-for-all!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No chance of any fellowship or coffee after mass; there were simply too many people. My friends and I went for a cappuccino and a bowl of risotto at the Rome bus terminal cafeteria right beside St Peter’s Square. Not your typical cafeteria food.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

As mentioned above, nothing was served; there was no place to serve anything.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – If I lived in the area, I would attend faithfully.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes it did. The extra special feature of this mass was the fact that there were people from every corner of the globe attending, all praying together.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The Pope's homily and the heavenly choir.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools