Roman Journal: Magnificant Mass
The Novendiali are nine Masses said for the soul of the Holy Father following his funeral. They are celebrated each afternoon at 5 p.m. in St. Peter’s Basilica.
I was grateful to attend the final Novendiali Mass, celebrated by retired Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, a Chilean and former head of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
I confess that Mass in St. Peter’s is both magnificent and distracting.
It is the one time when the powerful lights near the ceiling of the Basilica are switched on, illuminating the gold dome and the brilliant gold mosaic lettering that rim the interior and remind visitors in six-foot tall letters that Christ told Peter that what he bound on earth was bound in heaven.
The guide books tell us, and our eyes confirm, that the proportions of St. Peter’s Basilica are so perfectly measured that despite its huge scale, it seems completely harmonious in its design. It is only when one stands next to a cherub holding a holy water font that you realize the cherub is eight feet tall, a kind of “monster baby” that doesn’t look out of place because everything is equally huge.
But sitting in the nave in rickety plastic chairs with some thousands of other pilgrims, I can’t help but feel a bit dwarfed by the immense statues of dead popes and triumphant saints.
Even the ironic is on a monumental scale. I find it strangely comforting, and very Catholic, to note that just to the right of the papal altar is an enormous statue to St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians (check) who is shown rejecting the bishop’s miter. Thus is humility immortalized, only a few feet away from the celebrant’s chair of the most powerful earthly position in the Church.
At 5 p.m. sharp, into the Mass processed a goodly number of the cardinals, dressed in white. Cameras flashed and heads craned as both active and retired cardinals processed in, followed in turn by two Swiss guards who stood at attention near the altar itself.
I would like to say that such Masses are full of great spiritual moments, but the truth is that one is surrounded by distractions. Tourists are coming and going on the side aisles, or looking curiously at those who are seated. Ushers police the aisles, occasionally stopping to chat in a whisper with someone they might know.
The basilica choir chants beautifully in Latin, and next to me is a gentleman who chanted every word right along with them for the entire Mass. On the other side of me was an Italian woman speaking in both English and Italian and complaining about all of the cameras.
The first two readings were in Italian, the Gospel in Latin, and the Homily in Italian. The rest of the Mass was in Latin also, and I had to reach far back into my altar boy past to remember the Latin responses.
Here and there, cell phones would start ringing, but one could barely hear them in that vast space.
There are no kneelers in St. Peter’s, and one stands when one is not sitting. We all stood during the Consecration, simply because there was no space to kneel. At Communion, one could receive on the tongue or in the hand, and some dozens of priests distributed hosts relatively quickly.
The Mass lasted an hour and a half. I did pray -- for the cardinals, for my son who is about to be confirmed, for my family and for the Church. I count myself lucky to be here, fortunate to pray near the tomb of St. Peter, near the tomb of Pope John Paul II, at this moment in history.
At the end of Mass, the cardinals processed out. Many in the crowd rushed to the barricades to watch them go by. They are celebrities for a few days now, until they have done their job and elected the man who will lead them.
I think it would be appropriate for all of us to say a prayer to St. Bruno, that a man is elected who is capable but also humble, willing to assume the burden, but perhaps not wanting it too much.
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