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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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