When in Rome
(Do as the Romans)

Peregrinus Goes Abroad
Part 2: Peregrinus Goes Abroad; Chapter 26

One’s first glimpse of Rome is always memorable. Our two old friends came to the Eternal City through a golden twilight, the Dome of St. Peter’s seeming to float, like a titanic bubble, on the dim radiance of the campagna,[1] as the train dipped down from the Alban Hills. It was dark when they reached the terminal, and they drove through the streets to their pensione[2] feeling very much pleased with themselves for being, at last, in the center of things.

 

It was interesting to put up at a hotel staffed by nuns, to ring the bell for hot water and have it brought by a Sister instead of a bell boy. Convenient, too, to go down the tawdry grand staircase (the house had, long ago, been a Cardinal’s “palace”) and find a small Chapel with everything prepared for Mass, and a couple of Sisters to ring the bell and answer the prayers. Breakfast, mirabile dictu,[3] was substantial, served at a small iron table in the courtyard. The good Sisters are Swiss, and speak German as their own tongue, though, like most Romans, they are equally at home in many languages.[4]

 

Hardly was breakfast disposed of than Monsignore Procuratore’s card was brought in. The Agent of several American Bishops was, as might be expected, courtly, suave, eager to be of assistance. “You will see the Holy Father the day after tomorrow,” he said when they were seated in the small salon, hung with faded brocade and furnished with stiff and none-too-comfortable gold chairs. “A Messenger of the Vatican will bring your cards the evening before, and the audience will be at thirteen o’clock. You will wear cassock with cloak of ceremony—”

 

“I beg your pardon, Monsignore,” interrupted the Antiquary.

 

Ferraiolo,”[5] explained the Agent, “You can rent them at any clerical tailoring shop, or, perhaps, the good Sisters here can supply you. We use them rarely in Rome nowadays, most of the Clergy preferring the long-buttoned ‘douillette’[6] for ordinary wear. ‘Copri-miseria’[7] we sometimes call it! You’d better get hats too, for the occasion, though you’ll leave them in the ante-room. I will meet you in the Cortile di S. Damaso and go in with you. The Bishop has asked for a semi-private audience—”

 

“Now, now!” it was the Liturgiologist who interrupted this time. “We’ll be quite satisfied just to see the Holy Father, and get his blessing—no need for conversation!”

 

“There probably will be none,” smiled the Monsignore. “And the only difference between a private audience and a semi-private one is that for the former you go in to the Pope, while for the latter the Pope comes out to you!”

 

“About getting things blessed?” queried the Antiquary.

 

“If you have much, it would be better to arrange with one of the shops, Calabresi’s for example, to send everything to the Vatican. But if you have only a few things you might take them in yourself. All that is necessary is for you to have the intention that you wish such and such to be blessed, for the Pope does the blessing in globo.[8] And now if you will excuse me—” And the Agent bowed himself out.

 

What would you want to see first in Rome? Well, the two old Priests felt the same way about it, and in a few minutes were seated in a one-horse open carriage, with a taximeter, jolting over the cobblestones and across the bridge towards St. Peter’s.

 

“Why, it doesn’t look so large!” said the Antiquary, in a rather disappointed tone, as they alighted in the piazza.

 

“Wait till you get inside,” replied the Liturgiologist. “It just rises up and smites you. First time I was here I leaned up against the side of the doorway and cried like a baby.”

 

“Well, anyway, there are more steps than you’d think,” puffed the Antiquary, when at last they stood in the portico. The Liturgiologist was out of breath too, and they paused a few moments, looking out through the grill work of the doorways at the colonnade where the fountains played.

 

“Now, I’m ready,” said the Antiquary softly, and they lifted aside the leather curtain hanging in the center door, and were inside the basilica. For a moment the dim light bewildered them, then, far off, through the gloom they discovered the glimmer of the lamps about the Confessio,[9] and started slowly towards the High Altar in that silence which overtakes the devout and curious alike when once they find themselves in the largest church in the world, which is, besides, the center of Christendom.

 

It is a long walk from the door to the Confessio, under the vast dome, and while one makes it, slowly, little by little, the immensity of the place impresses itself upon one’s consciousness. A guide or two approached them, to be waved aside by the Liturgiologist. Finally they came to the low railing before the High Altar with the steps leading down through the glimmering lamps to the low portal that marks the Tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. There they knelt and said the Credo, universal greeting of Prelate and Priest alike upon arrival at the Threshold of the Apostles. And presently they were strolling about, like any other sightseers, noting this and that, according to their deepest proclivities.

 

Antependia,”[10] said the Liturgiologist. “See, every altar has one, and the High Altar two, one on the front and one on the back! Framed and apparently permanent, but not one altar is bare, and there doesn’t seems to be any lace except on the ends of the linens.”

 

“God forgive me for distractions,” murmured the Antiquary. “But did you notice the Tabernacle in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament?”

 

“I did!” snapped the Liturgiologist. “Most have been a blow to you, with your insistence on a ‘freestanding Tabernacle,’ but I’ve always said that the shape of the Tabernacle was a matter for the architect. Certainly you can never again say that a Tabernacle built into the gradine[11] is not ‘liturgical.’ The veil didn’t go all around, because it couldn’t. Make a note of it, Pere.”

 

“But surely,” protested the Antiquary, “the free-standing Tabernacle, veiled all around, is more correct.”

 

“If the architectural style of the Altar or church calls for it, it doubtless is,” assented the Liturgiologist. “But to say that all Tabernacles must be cylindrical or freestanding simply does not stand the test of approved usage. You’ll find as many built-in ones in Rome as there are freestanding. But you’ll always find the veil, and you’ll not find a Tabernacle on every Altar, and rather rarely on the High Altar, for the Blessed Sacrament is almost everywhere reserved in a chapel.”

 

“Just as well, with all these tourists gawking about,” opined the Antiquary. “But, with all these lamps and shrines and things, it isn’t always easy to find the Tabernacle. I noticed that in Naples, and I suppose it’s the same here.”

 

“The veil, rather than the lamp, is the distinguishing mark of the Altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved,” replied the Liturgiologist. “True, Canon 1271[12] prescribes ‘at least one lamp’ to burn day and night before the Altar when the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. And, by the way, have you noticed that the Canon permits a wax candle in the Sanctuary Lamp as a recognized alternative for olive oil? It’s only when, for some good reason, some other oil, vegetable or otherwise, is used that the permission of the Ordinary is required.”

 

“I don’t see any electric lights in these lamps,” remarked the Antiquary.

 

“Not in St. Peter’s,” growled the Liturgiologist. “But you’ll see plenty of ‘em in the other churches, unless things have changed since I was here last. Never in the lamp before the Blessed Sacrament, however. That was permitted by the C.S.R. Nov. 23, 1916, ‘on account of war conditions.’[13] And while that permission could hardly be pleaded now, it does seem as if the former rigorous decisions not only might be, but are being, taken with a goodly dose of discretion, as Augustine remarks.”

 

“For all that, we’ll not have ‘em in St. Inveteratus,” said the Antiquary firmly.

 

“No one will force you to,” grinned the Liturgiologist. “But a few days in Rome will make you less disdainful of those who do.”

High Altar at St. Peter's Basilica
Confessio of St. Peter
Tabernacle in St. Peter's
Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Basilica of St. Peter's. Note the white antependium. By Apostolic Indult, the enormous tabernacles in St. John Lateran's and St. Peter's Basilicas are not required to be veiled.
Antependium on Papal Altar
This white and gold antependium at St. Peter's Basilica is circa 16th century.
Ferraiolo
Red antependium
Freestanding tabernacle
A liturgically-correct tabernacle should stand free of the gradine or other structure.
Tabernacle veiled with conopaeum
This is the correct form of the tabernacle veil.
Proper High Altar
This watercolor is from Candles in the Roman Rite and features the ideal form of the altar, freestanding with canopy and veiled with antependium. The tabernacle is also freestanding and properly veiled with a conopaeum. Note also the large hanging sanctuary lamp.
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Footnotes

1 Italian for a rural area.

2 Italian for a small hotel.

3 A Latin idiomatic phrase that means “amazing to say”.

4 [Original Peregrinus footnote] This pensione has since been discontinued. The clerical pilgrim will find the Hotel Imperiale, just across the Via Veneto from the Church of the Cappucini quite satisfactory and not expensive.

5 A type of clerical cape worn on formal occasions.

6 French for “housecoat”.

7 An Italian phrase that literally translates as “it covers misery ” (that is, the person who is miserable from the inclement weather), a type of cloak that was once popularly worn in Italy, though not by the clergy.

8 Latin for “in a mass” or as “a group”.

9 The Confessio is the area directly in front of the high altar that leads down to the Niche of St. Peter where his remains are enshrined.

10 Latin plural for antependium, or altar frontal.

11 A shelf or step situated on the back portion of the altar where the altar candles are often placed. As seen on the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica (and explained in The Liturgical Altar), a gradine is not required part of the altar structure.

12 This canon is from the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

13 This decree is from the Sacred Congregation of Rites which is usually abbreviated as S.R.C. instead of C.S.R. as Fr. Chapman cites.

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