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Holy Thursday in Rome

The Paschal Triduum in Rome this year sees even more than its usual number of pilgrims and visitors. In part this is because of the lateness of the season – in two centuries, it will be this late or later only thrice – and in part because of early arrivals for the beatification of John Paul II next Sunday, May 1.

Given a shortage of tickets to papal events, a group of friends – from the Lay Centre, students in Rome and visitors from the States – opted for the neighboring parish basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, alias the Navicella, for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper after an early dinner.

Our local parish, animated by the Communione e Liberazione movement, the church is beautifully mosaiced, based on an ancient site, and normal Sunday liturgy includes a full choir of young voices, so our expectations were a little high. We did want something shorter than the papal liturgy down the street at the Cathedral, but none of us were quite prepared for what felt more like a daily mass with a couple extra bits added on – the entire liturgy, including a period of adoration at the altar of repose, was finished in 55 minutes.

There was no choir, no psalmist – even the Gloria was merely recited. The washing of the feet (of a dozen teen and preteen boys) barely took five minutes. The only minister of the mass was the presiding priest – even for the procession to the altar of repose the thurifer and crucifer were pulled form the assembly and dressed in ‘civvies’, rather than an alb (or cassock and surplice).

On one hand, there is something nice about not having to wait for three hours to get into a three hour liturgy. On the other hand, the liturgy looses something when, as one visitor said, it seems as if the presider has more important things to do afterwards!

Still, the altar of repose was tastefully prepared, with a simple and elegant wooden tabernacle. The abbreviated liturgy left us four hours to visit and pray at as many churches as desired before midnight; the goal was the traditional seven, culminating at the Pantheon, which was reputed to have one of the most beautiful altars prepared in the city.

(Some friends just reported on their evening at Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps, as one of the most beautiful liturgies ever experienced – something to keep in mind next year!)

Pictures pending – but here’s a schedule of our mini-pilgrimage:

+         Santa Maria in Cosmedin – closed

+         San Giorgio in Valabro – closed

+         San Nicola in Carcere – open

+         Santa Maria in Campitelli – open

+         Santa Maria in Ara Coeli – open

+         San Marco – closed

+         Cappella della Madonnella – open

+         Chiesa del Gesù – closed

+         Santa Maria Sopra Minerva – open

+         Sant’Ignazio – closed

+         Santa Maria ad Martyres (Pantheon) – closed

+         San Luigi dei Francese – open

+         Sant’Agnese in Agone – closed

+         Sant’Andrea della Valle – open

The intended grand finale of the Pantheon was closed, as was the Jesuit headquarters of the Gesù!

The French national church of San Luigi probably was the most evocative – you enter a completely dark church, only a small light in a distant chapel visible. As you stumble your way to its source, you see a single light illuminating a simple altar reserving the Blessed Sacrament under both species, tucked into the Contarelli Chapel, famous as each of sides is adorned with masterpieces of Caravaggio: the Calling of St. Matthew, the Inspiration of St. Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. With an entire church in black, and this small corner in light, it was as if Caravaggio himself had planned the entire experience.

San Nicola’s altar of repose was surrounded by about fifty candles, and attended by a solitary monk. Santa Maria in Compitelli was a church I had never visited before, and beheld there an 11th century icon and one of the rare baroque altars that actually looks good. Santa Maria in Ara Coeli had candles along the stairs leading up the Capitoline hill to the entrance and an altar of repose filled with flowers. Madonella is almost Reformed in its whitewashed and modern simplicity, and Sopra Minerva offered no surprises. At Sant’Andrea some very modern, interpretive paintings of the Stations of the Cross almost distracted before one could get to the altar of repose, but offered a welcome end to our evening’s sojourn in any case.

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