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Nativity of the Lord: Christmas Mass at Midnight

Preparing for Jill's Feast: AJ, Greg, Karina, Jill, Natalie

Nancy and I, and a small group from the Lay Centre started Christmas Eve with a traditional Italian dinner hosted by Jill, another Domer I discovered at the Angelicum. It was incredible! Antipasti and prosecco to start the night off, followed by soup, pasta, fish… and each prepared and served in proper order, it was almost a pity we had to leave for the mass! Seriously, aside from theology, ministry, and guiding tours of Rome she could open her own trattoria. Not only was it all delicious, it was presented so beautifully, it really made a special evening even more delightful.

Standing on the confessionals at St. Peter's, Midnight Mass 1944

It is from Jill that I learned that Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Until 1944, the last time the bishop of Rome had celebrated Christmas midnight mass at St. Peter’s is believed to be for the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Otherwise, the traditional location in Rome had been Santa Maria Maggiore – which makes a lot more sense given the indispensible role Mary played in the Nativity, and the location there of the relics of the Nativity including what was believed to be the manger in which the Christ child was laid. Since Pius XII’s celebration just after the liberation of Italy during WWII, the popes have celebrated midnight mass at St. Peter’s; but the Romans still go to Mary Major while the Americans and other pilgrims go pray with the pope – though we were not standing on the confessionals this time.

The line begins outside the Basilica of St. Peter

Jill’s place being mere minutes from Piazza San Pietro, we took some liberty with our arrival time. For the first time, what has traditionally been a Midnight Mass was moved up to 10:00pm so we were advised to arrive three hours early – we got there at 7:30 and got into a line that already wrapped around the entire Piazza and had started doubling up on itself. Waiting just ahead of us in line was an American, a theatre professor from Miami, who was hoping against hope to find a ticket to get into the papal mass. (His name is James Brown. No, really – you can look him up.) As it happens, I had had a friend arrange to get four tickets for us before we knew we would be getting enough through the Lay Centre, so Natalie had borrowed three for friends, and there was just one left over – the Spirit works in small ways too! Unfortunately, we lost Jim in the mass crush when our part of the line finally got inside the Basilica, but in a couple hours of waiting in line at least got to make a new friend.

View from our seats, taken after the liturgy

Once inside, we found the massive line had filled the seats in the nave and it looked as if we might have to stand – until they opened the transepts. We got the leftover seats from the “reserved” section in the south transept, directly to the side of the altar. We couldn’t see the pope as he sat in the presiders chair, but had a great view of the liturgy of the Eucharist.

We were placed directly between two of the massive pillars supporting Michelangelo’s Dome, looked over by Sts. John of God and Mary Euphrasia Pellettier on one side and Sts. Juliana Falconieri and Angela Merici on the other. Because of this we could not see very far down the nave toward the main doors. About the time we thought the music was changing from prelude to procession, we heard something like screams, a pause long enough to ask each other what that was about, then cheering. “Ah, they were cheering for the pope like a rock star!” We did not realize that Benedict had been knocked down until after the liturgy and we met up with some students who had been in that part of the Basilica. We did see Cardinal Etchegaray being wheeled out on a gurney behind us, and thought perhaps he had fallen or something. His Holiness did not mention it, and did not even seem fazed by the time we saw him.

Presepe at Piazza San Pietro

The liturgy was beautiful. Last time I was in Rome, for the close of the Jubilee, midnight mass had been held outside, in the Piazza. This was my second papal Eucharist inside St. Peter’s this year, and both times there has really been a sense of reverence and participation in the liturgy, even despite the size of the church and the numbers of people celebrating. The mass parts were in Latin, the readings in Spanish and English, the gospel sung in Latin and the pope’s homily delivered in Italian, the prayers of the faithful in Russian, French, Tagalog, Portugese, and German. The music is increadible, of course: the only places outside Rome I have seen compare for quality liturgy and liturgical music is the Basilica of Sacred Heart at Notre Dame and St. James Cathedral in Seattle. (The National Shrine in D.C. sometimes makes the cut, too…) Nancy was tempted to record the entire liturgy, but we settled for trying to get some of the music.

Afterwards we stood in front of the presepe (crèche, Nativity scene) at the foot of the obelisk in the middle of Bernini’s piazza, listening to a group of sisters singing carols. After an hour of trying to hail a taxi, we got a couple to take us back to the Lay Centre without trying to rip us off (Thank you, Karina!!)

On returning to the Lay Centre, Donna had prepared for us an “American breakfast” – pancakes with Canadian maple syrup, eggs, bacon, and orange juice – the most proper way to celebrate the birth of Jesus at 2:00am! And, to be honest, I do not think I have ever appreciated American fare so much!

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Scavi San Pietro

If you ever come to Rome, go on the “Scavi” tour of the excavations under St. Peter’s. You may have to reserve a spot several weeks or months in advance, but it is well worth it.

St. Peter's on Christmas Eve

Rome is history built upon layers of older history. It is easy to forget that much of the great sites, churches especially, have been built or entirely reconstructed as recently as the renaissance and baroque periods. The massive St. Peter’s Basilica that we see now was built over a 120 year period, throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Like the Lateran palace of the popes and a number of other buildings in Rome, the original Basilica of St. Peter had been left largely in neglect during the Avignon papacy and the papal schisms of the 14th and 15th century, and was in need of repair and restoration. Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of the Basilica, which had been built by Constantine more than a millennium before. The new would be built on the site of the old, with the altar as the center point and locus of continuity.

[For a great read on the history and the personalities of popes and architects involved in the building of the new St. Peter’s, I highly recommend R. A. Scotti’s Basilica: Splendor and the Scandal – Building St. Peter’s . It was given to me as a gift from a good friend, a priest with whom I worked closely while we were planning to build a church for the parish we were serving.]

Baldachino and high altar

Visitors to the Basilica today can tour the main level, designed largely by Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante and others, and then can go down to the “Tomb of the Popes” on the level of the old, Constantinian basilica for free and without tickets. If you did not know about the Scavi, you might think this level of the Vatican Grottoes was the lowest. But even Constantine built upon an older layer of history.

Before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire and began to build imperial unity by building churches, the Vatican was a hill, on the slopes of which was a Necropolis – a city of the dead. Mausoleums constructed literally as houses for the dead, pagan and Christian side by side (or on top of each other) in family plots clustered around the area. In order to build his massive basilica, Constanitne ordered the hill leveled and the slopes filled in, up to about the roofline of many of the houses of the dead, which were then filled with rubble and debris to make room for the basilica platform.

Vatican Necropolis under St. Peter's

It was in the midst of this necropolis that a small shrine was built up against a red wall. Over the few hundred years between the construction of the shrine and its being covered by Constantines basilica, more and more Christians were found to be buried as close as possible to the shrine, often without care for previous graves so that several layers of graves were found right on top of one another radiationg out fromthis shrine. But the shrine itself remained undisturbed.

It was this Necropolis that was excavated under the orders of Pius XII between 1939-1949. The remnants of the shrine was found, as described by ancient sources (in 160 AD, Gaius described the Trophy of St. Peter) – the tomb of Peter had been discovered!

Unfortunately, it was discovered to be empty.

During the course of excavations, other graves were found, and in one of the walls adjacent to the tomb, some human remains were discovered. In 1942 the rector of the basilica took it upon himself to move these without going through the archaeologists working in the area, to preserve these possible relics of some unknown saint. Years later they were “rediscovered” by one of those working on the excavations, and testing confirmed they fit the demographic profile of St. Peter at the time of his death and are presumed to be his remains, moved from the original grave to the adjacent ossuary in the wall for veneration, perhaps.

The various altars of St. Peter's

Talk about innovation and continuity, the story of the Church! Consider the layers built one on top of another to mark the apostle’s martyrdom:

  1. A first century grave (c.70AD)
  2. A second century shrine, the “Trophy” of St. Peter (before c. 160AD)
  3. Constantine’s monument then basilica (c.315)
  4. The altar of Gregory the Great (c.600)
  5. The altar of Callistus II (c.1120)
  6. The altar of Clement VIII (c.1600) – the current high altar
  7. Bernini’s Baldachino
  8. Michaelangelo’s Dome

Nancy and i were fortunate enough to find space on a tour just a few days ahead, and joined two families (one from Portland!) who had reserved their tours weeks in advance.

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