Peregrinus Goes Abroad
Part 2: Peregrinus Goes Abroad; Chapter 28
Across the city and out through the Porta di S. Paolo, on the site of the ancient Ostian Gate, through vast new suburbs made hideous by factories it is a matter of half an hour on a trolley car to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
“When I came here as a boy, with my mother,” said the Liturgiologist, “she referred to this basilica as ‘St. Paul’s Without the Walls,’ and I was amazed to find a church, walls, roof and all, but downcast because I wasn’t allowed to slide on the mirror-like marble pavement.”
“It must have been quiet in the fields when it was built,” remarked the Antiquary, as they alighted from the car and walked around the apse and along the length of the church to the elaborate colonnade leading to the portico. “It’s about the last of Rome even now.” Standing on the edge of the campania, the Tiber close by but concealed by high banks, the hills or Rome in the distance, “Sanpaolo” is perhaps the most beautiful interior in Rome, and it is, comparatively speaking, very modern indeed. For the ancient basilica was destroyed by fire in 1823 and the present church was built under Pius IX and Leo XIII. Yet nowhere, perhaps, is there a more striking example of the force of the dictum, "Let the ancient customs prevail." For the basilica is such, not only in name but in architectural form. The high altar stands well out in the nave, above the confessio in which rests the relics of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
“Let this satisfy your craving for baldachini,” smiled the Liturgiologist, “for here are two, one atop the other. The ciborium proper (of course you know, being an antiquary, that that’s the correct term for the canopy over an altar, while the cup [ciborium] in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved is, stricte loquendo, a pyx) is almost Gothic, while above it towers another, in the Romanesque style. But, dear Father, you shall now see for yourself.” And the two old friends, having crossed the garden between the great colonnades (gift of the Italian Government) entered the basilica.
“Adhaesit pavement anima mea.” (Psalm 118:25) whispered the Antiquary as he sank to his knees. Before them stretched “as it were, a sea of glass like unto crystal” (Apocalypse 4:6), the most marvelous floor on earth, reflecting the columns of the four aisles. (Need one remark that an “aisle” is not an alley between pews, but that part of a church at the sides of the nave, and outside the columns which support the roof? In the Pauline Basilica there are two rows of columns on either side of the nave, giving a double aisle, and, of course, there are no pews at all. The whole magnificent sweep of the pavement spreads itself before one, unmarred save for narrow strips of matting laid down for the convenience of visitors.)
“St. Peter’s is grand, but not beautiful,” said the Antiquary, when he had finished his prayers and, rising, dusted off his knees. “But this is beauty incarnate.”
“A miracle!” agreed the Liturgiologist. “I mean your enthusiasm! For an antiquary to fall into raptures over a modern church, yet be left, if not exactly cold, at least not dithyrambic in the midst of antiquities! One sees now why the Italians have never adopted the Protestant custom of pews! You’ll find some long kneeling benches in the side chapels, and plenty of little chair-kneelers to be had from the Sagrestano (for cinque centesimi rent!) at Mass time. Most of the good people stand, even during sermons. Incidentally you can get a good many more people into a pewless church, and these vast basilicas are thronged on the great feasts.”
“They don’t seem to be thronged at other times,” remarked the Antiquary dryly. “There seems to be a legend that the modern Romans...”
“Wait a minute,” cut in the Liturgiologist. “Remember, Masses are continuous, and often at several altars at the same time, from early morning till noon. The churches are vast, the people stand. A congregation of a thousand people would look like a small crowd in a church like this. And there are so many churches. I rather think that the proportion of Mass-hearers to the total population (almost entirely Catholic) in Rome on a Sunday morning, would compare favorably with that of any American city.”
During their conversation the two old Priests had walked the length of the nave, and paused now to make their devotions at the Tomb of St. Paul. Presently they passed behind the high altar into the tremendous apse and observed the small altar close to the railing which sets off the choir from the transepts and nave.
“Ah! At last!” gasped the Antiquary. “No gradines, no tabernacle, crucifix and candlesticks standing on the mensa...”
“Well, you saw the same thing in St. Peter’s,” rejoined the Liturgiologist. “And you’ll see it in many churches here. But you’ll see other arrangements, too. Observe, the celebrant at this altar faces the congregation, with the liturgical choir back of him, around the apse, and the throne before the altar, in the middle of the apse. The high altar is, of course, a Papal Altar, though the Pope hasn’t said Mass there since 1870. He sends a cardinal to celebrate on the occasion of the Stations which are observed here. At other times High Mass is sung at this small altar in the apse. The church is in charge of the Benedictines, who render the chant so wonderfully. We must come out here again on Sunday and hear it.”
“Let’s poke into the sacristy,” suggested the Antiquary, after a little. They found it easily enough, a large room with the inevitable presses around the walls, a small altar at one end, and long tables for the vestments. At one side a shelf held a number of small oblong baskets each containing two cruets, a tray and a lavabo towel, with a small hand bell slipped through a strap on one side.
“What an excellent idea!” cried the Liturgiologist. “One must have to walk a city block in more than one of these Roman churches to reach an altar to say Mass, and the server carries the missal under his arm, and one of these baskets in his hand, and brings everything back with him when Mass is ended. Now this is really clever, practical too. Why have we never thought of it?”
“Because we don’t have to walk a block from the sacristy to altar, smiled the Antiquary.
“Might not have to walk at all,” smiled the Liturgiologist. “There’s an altar here in the sacristy, quite right and proper.”
“One understands the reverences to various functions to be performed in the sacristy, when one sees a fine large room like this,” said the Antiquary. “It seems one of our bad traditions that the sacristy shall be a tiny coop, with hardly room enough for a vestment case, let alone an altar. But isn’t the Sacristy really a liturgical part of the church building, Pere?”
“It certainly is,” replied the Liturgiologist, brightening up at the prospect of a discussion. “Why, part of the Funeral Rite is supposed to be performed in the sacristy. Wonder how many know that, and how many do it? Of course, we can’t expect to have immense halls, like this, in our American churches, for the country parishes are too poor to build’em and the city churches too crowded. Neither you nor I can expect our ashes to repose in a sacristy! But the sacristy altar is not only ornamental, but useful as well. Especially if the church has but one proper altar. The Blessed Sacrament could be moved thither while the church is being cleaned or repaired. Some Masses might be said there, when the congregation is small, or the weather cold. They do that in our country parishes, all right.”
“Don’t make me homesick,” sighed the Antiquary. “We have a fairly large sacristy at St. Inveteratus...”
“Here, here!” cried the Liturgiologist, “you’re in Rome, not Centerville, and in Rome you’ll stay, for a while at least. Didn’t you come here, among other reasons, to try to forget your happy home for a little while?”
1 This is apparently a tongue-in-check reference to the Latin name of the Roman region known as Campania felix, or the “happy countryside” in contrast to the formal rural setting around the basilica.
2 As seen in the sidebar pic, after the fire of 1823, a second civory was installed over the gothic one designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1285, which survived the fire. The newer civory was removed after our priest’s visit circa 1931.
3 Latin for “strictly speaking”.
4 That is, the ciborium, but also the watch case like vessel used for sick calls.
5 “My soul hath cleaved to the pavement…”.
6 Italian for the “Sacristan”.
7 A five cent coin.
8 It is noteworthy that as late as 1955, J.B. O’Connell in his work, Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way (Notre Dame University Press), describes on p 70, that “usually the seating in a church is an ugly and conspicuous feature. It is a necessary evil.”
9 Concerning the absence of gradines as the ideal arrangement, see The Liturgical Altar. On the matter of the tabernacle, this is in reference to the high altar in cathedrals (and basilicas) where a special chapel (and altar) is used for reserving the Blessed Sacrament. As for the missing cross and candles, in Rome, it was the ancient custom to remove these items from the altar when liturgical services were not being held.
10 After the signing of the Lateran Treaty of 1929, popes do go to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls to celebrate Mass, such as Pope John XXIII in 1959.
11 Drawers for storing vestments.
12 These prayers (which were a type of private devotion of the priest and his accompanying ministers) are no longer said according to 1957 Vatican Edition of the Rituale Romanum and as denoted by such rubricians as Dr. Adrian Fortescue in The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described (Burns and Oates, 1962).
The saint's tomb is behind the grille. Also, the bluish box contains an iron chain that bound St. Paul.
The taller civory has been removed.