Wednesday, January 18, 2006

From the Seven Hills

An Aussie priest stationed in Rome sent out a circular letter about Christmas in the Eternal City, his struggle to get tickets to Midnight Mass -- no less than Michael Miller could only swing but one -- and reflections on the Pope.

It's nine thousand words of absolute fun....

First off, the Quote of the Day:
Benedict, when he was said to be God's Rottweiler in charge of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, was the darling of the Loony Right, but since becoming a German Shepherd, he has curtailed some of their activities and they are now confused about his position.
The difficulty of getting Midnight tickets:
It happened in the sacristy at 6.25 am four days before Christmas. The French Connection came over to me, kissed his stole, and said, "I cannot get you the tickets for Midnight Mass." So during the mass I prayed for inspiration and, after breakfast, casually asked at the front desk of this house about tickets for Midnight Mass. "No, we don't have tickets here for Midnight Mass. We have tickets here only for papal audiences," the Columbian secretary said. She is not really a secretary; she is a consecrated virgin who is here studying philosophy in order to study theology. She would like to be a priest one day she told me. As a consolation prize she held up an envelope with tickets marked for the thirty-first of December. She suggested I try the French Monsignor who runs the French Desk at the Secretary of State at the Vatican who gets the tickets for papal audiences and gives them to the front-of-house staff. When I told her he had failed me, she said, "Try the Vatican yourself," hoping to be helpful.

The Vatican Ticketek is located within the Apostolic Palace. You enter through the "Bronze Door" on the right of St Peter's. Not the glass doors that lead to the newly installed toilets on the immediate right of the basilica, but the Bronze Door at the end of the right-hand colonnade begun by Bernini in 1656 under Pope Alexander VII. You now go through an airport security-type system to get into St Peter's. There is always a queue that zigzags like the queue in your local Commonwealth Bank except that the barricades are made of wood painted grey and have protruding feet that catch the young, the elderly and the unwary. The carabinieri man the surveillance screens and other carabinieri go over you with those round plastic metal detectors. The police officer watching the screen is watching the girls and the one with the round plastic metal detector uses the wand to go under the coats of the young ladies whose buckles have set off the alarm.

Passing through the detection system, I fronted up to the next outpost of carabinieri who were manning a checkpoint to the Bronze Door. I told the officer who was not smoking that I wanted to go into the Palace to get tickets for Midnight Mass. Obviously used to such requests, he opened the gate and allowed me past the tourists who were taking pictures of the Swiss Guards separated from me by only ten metres and a flight of twenty or so stairs. The young Swiss Guard at the top of the stairs, standing at right angles just stands with his lancet (is that what you call it?) angled away from his body. He looks straight ahead. His superior officer came towards me and saluted. He obviously could tell from my confident air that I was the parish priest of Seven Hills (or it may have been because I had re-badged myself as an Opus Dei and on that account he was very respectful.)

"I want entry to the Apostolic Palace to get tickets for Midnight Mass," I said confidently.

"I am sorry, Monsignor," he said, "But the tickets for Midnight Mass went weeks ago."

"What? They have all gone? Really? No more tickets for Midnight Mass?"

"No, Monsignor, I am sorry."

The good father's account of Midnight Mass:
It may seem strange to say, but I can understand Benedict when he speaks in Italian. He speaks in a high-pitched voice but speaks slowly, using ordinary words with a decided Colonel Clink pronunciation. But he is easy to follow. The Prayers of the Faithful were in French, German, Swahili, Filipino, Polish and Portuguese. The mass text was in two columns throughout our mass booklet. The foreign language being used was on the left-hand side and on the opposite column, Italian. I noticed that the Swahili took up two more lines than the Italian but the German took up a whopping four more lines to say the same thing as was being prayed in Italian. English took less printer's ink to say the same thing as the Italian. The Vatican bean counters haven't cottoned onto this yet, otherwise they would print the whole book in English and save paper....

I noticed an omission at the Midnight Mass when, in English, the reader read out, "In a special way, we are united with our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Eastern and Western Europe, who take part in this Mass by radio and television." Perhaps the Vatican has made the decision that John Howard is finding difficult to make, namely, that we [Australians] are part of Asia. Also, the mass booklet told us that some children from various continents would carry to the Holy Father, the offertory gifts. I noticed they wore national costume. I didn't see any bambini in jeans, joggers, football gurnseys and hats with bobbing corks. I was disappointed. Perhaps we are only an island....

Our minister [of Communion] was a deacon wearing the stole across his shoulders as deacons do. He had trouble giving communion to people "in the hand." In fact he refused to give communion to people in the hand and in the end when people in our row stood on their dig, he did not come to our row anymore. It took me some time to work out why our row was not moving as the others were. It was because of this Mexican standoff with the people in our row and our deacon. Our row started to move only after the rows near us had been served communion and the minister of communion to the next row came then to us. I felt it was a sad reflection on our church that a mere deacon was using holy communion for his own political purposes.
You think the "mere deacons" are bad? Hint, hint: the mere laity who use communion (and everything else) for their own political purposes are much worse.

In that great hall where we were and in the same month of December, forty-two years before, the pope had promulgated a document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. In one part it called for "full, conscious, and active participation" by all the people at Mass. I suggest that the Roman authorities still haven't got it. There was no way "the people" could join in anything at this Midnight Mass. Even if they had had Silent Night in German, to please the Holy Father, the congregation would have lifted the roof. I admit, the choir did sing Adeste Fedeles, but it was so drawn-out and slow, it was unsingable. It was the only tune that everyone knew if you discount the Latin "Our Father". I think you are getting the idea that I was bitterly disappointed in the music; not that I was expecting the choir to burst into "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

In conclusion, I have to say it was a marvellous experience. My memories are of the lights, the colour, the sweet smell of incense, the Swiss Guards standing ten metres apart; the whole night was very moving. When the Pope came down the main aisle at the end of mass to place the bambino in the crib at the back of the basilica, he passed within five metres of us. I took a movie on my camera. He was shaking hands with people, he was blessing them and he was enjoying the whole experience. The crowd, standing on chairs mostly, yelled out and clapped and tried to touch him. Even the cardinals accompanying him had a jovial air about them; cardinal-style, but jovial.

They had them vestments just workin'.

While it was cold outside, it was very comfortable in the basilica. When, at the end of mass, we advanced towards the great back doors that were opened full length that night, we could feel the cold air taking over some fifty rows before we got to the doors. Those doors are so big it is like they open up half the back wall. Naturally everyone wanted the comfort rooms when we exited, but they were closed with staff directing people to conveniences elsewhere. So Roman!