Benedict Ambrose and I are back in Edinburgh and feeling very cheerful after our week in Rome. I asked B.A. what he liked best and he said “Mass at Santissima Trinita and eating with friends.” That is what I liked best, too, although being part of the Corpus Christi procession from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major was certainly a highlight.
The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is beautiful no matter where it is said, as long as it is said well, but it is especially beautiful at Santissima Trinita dei Pelligrini in Rome. The priests and servers are meticulous and graceful, the schola is incredibly talented, the acoustics are a miracle of perfection and the church is marble. I don’t know who on earth first came up with the absurdity that it doesn’t matter if a church is plain or pretty, or that the choir is bad or good, or that priests say mass heartily or reverently.
it matters. On Trinity Sunday there was a large American Protestant lady in the pew before me who was in tears by the end, so moved was she by the whole experience of the Extraordinary Form. I don’t remember if she had a Latin-English missal or not–there were paper Latin-Italian missals at the back–so she might not have understood the literal words, but she certainly understood the
On that Sunday, an Archbishop who was gently guided around the E.F. by MCs was the celebrant. On the following Sunday, the External Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the pastor (or, as we say in the UK, the parish priest) celebrated the pontifical high mass. Thus, it was even more beautiful, for the gestures were perfect–priest, deacon and sub-deacon in complete harmony of movement. I suddenly remembered how, in the eighteenth century, the Jesuits were greatly interested in ballet and other courtly dances. Long before liturgists with an Isadora Duncan complex came up with soi-disant “liturgical dance,” ballet-perfect gesture and movement were an important part of the Rome Rite. They, too, make a difference.
That mass that day, that place, those people, was truly, truly moving.
In a somewhat different way, it had been moving to be with a crowd of people standing behind barricades set up in the piazzale before Saint John Lateran and assist at Corpus Christi mass celebrated by a small beloved figure with very white hair and a rather brown face. Every time I see him in person, I am surprised by how little Benedict XVI is. His stature is rather a contrast to his presence in the life of the McAmbroses, as B.A. is a tremendous fan and we and our Edinburgh friends seem to talk about him a lot.
What I liked very much, and what I think it important to impress upon Protestant readers, was that it was easy to forget that the Holy Father was there. Corpus Christi Mass was about Christ, first of all, in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and not at all about Benedict XVI. He just happened to be there with us, and it was greatly cheering to me to suddenly look up from my prayers and remember, “Oh, goodness! There’s the Holy Father with us today!”
The Holy Father has for a long time been very interested in liturgy, and his gentle corrections to the liturgical errors of the 1970s and 1980s were obvious. The choirs–the St. John Lateran and the Sistine–sang the actual propers, not hymns replacing the propers, and in Gregorian chant. The Kyrie was in Greek. The Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus, the Pater Noster, the Agnus Dei were in Latin. The Holy Father said the entire Canon in Latin. Booklets had been handed out so those with absolutely no clue could read along in Italian or English. Thus the only part of the Mass that most of the Catholic world would not have understood at all was the (unpublished) homily, which was in Italian, language of the local diocese. As you can read elsewhere, it was about devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and slammed the errors of the 1970s and 1980s.
After Mass, the choirs sang hymns in Latin and Italian. The Blessed Sacrament was brought in a monstrance to a motorized covered white platform, and shortly afterwards Benedict took a seat on this platform, behind the monstrance. The machine slowly moved forward, and the hundred or so in chairs and the thousands standing slowly oozed away from St. John Lateran into the street. We followed after Christ and Peter in the dark, many holding candles protected by (flammable) paper shades, as loudspeakers all along the Via Merulana broadcast the Lateran choir’s hymns, Gospel readings, and prayers. Church and convents had banners celebrating the Blessed Sacrament hanging from the windows. Pious families living along the route hung out their best white lace tablecloths or red and white streamers. Tourists goggled or, frowning, cut anxiously across the procession to get to the other side of the street. We swept on.
The crowd packed the piazza in front of San Maria Maggiore for the final Benediction. B.A., who is taller than I, managed to see when the Holy Father held up the monstrance, and we got down on our knees. I was sorry that the most of the rest of the crowd did not for–as I wrote above–gesture is so important. But, nevertheless, it was a great experience. And you would not believe how many young nuns, seminarians and priests were there. The average age of a nun outside St. John Lateran and then S. Maria Maggiore seemed be be 23.
As for all the lovely meals we had with lovely people, that is a subject for another post. So is the mystery of the lost weight. Whenever B.A. and I go to Italy, we eat lots of lovely, lovely Italian food, and yet we lose weight.