Holy Week in Rome

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Two weeks ago was Holy Week for the entire Catholic world, and with Rome as the capital of that world, it came as no surprise that the week was met with much fanfare, as well as many people. Although I unfortunately missed Palm Sunday mass in Rome as I was traveling back from Cinque Terre, I was able to attend two very important events during “Settimana Santa”.

My godparents were in town during the week visiting their daughter who is also studying abroad here in Rome. I met up with them on Friday afternoon and later that night we attended the “Via Crucis”, the Stations of the Cross. The service was scheduled to start at 9:30, and we arrived around 7:00 to make sure we got a good spot, having no idea what to expect. When we got there, large crowds had already gathered around the gate waiting to get in. The service was being held in the area around the Colosseum, with the Pope leading it from atop the Palatine hill. The service takes place there in memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the Colosseum.

As we stood in line, we struggled to figure out what the situation would be like once we got inside. Everyone except for my godmother and her mother decided to stay in line, while the rest of them climbed another hill with a “better safe than sorry” outlook. The three of us who remained were determined to get a good spot. After a long wait in line, with many jeers from the crowd as “pass holders” pushed their way to the front and promptly denied entrance, and a manageable amount of pushing and shoving as they opened the gates, we made our way to a spot along the fence by which the procession would pass.

We waited inside for another hour and a half or so before the service started. Unfortunately, the Pope was not a part of the procession which led the cross up to the Palatine hill, but we still had a great spot to experience such an unforgettable event. We had all been unprepared for the cold weather that came with nightfall, but it was Good Friday, so we didn’t complain…too much.

Two days later was Easter Sunday, the most celebrated day in the liturgical calendar. We had all secured tickets for Easter mass at the Vatican, which was to be held outdoors in Piazza San Pietro. I had heard and read about the massive crowds that gathered for this mass, often spilling out into the street beyond the piazza which had a capacity of around 80,000 (no Beaver Stadium, but still a lot of people). I arrived at around 7:20 for the 10:15 mass, and my godparents and their family arrived shortly after.

At 7:20, there were already a few hundred people in line to get in. One of the things I dislike most about Italy is the lack of order in many things we take for granted in the U.S. One of these things is lines. While the crowd was somewhat orderly before the gates opened, as soon as the Carbinieri started to allow people through security, the group of Catholics dressed in their Sunday best turned into a mob. It wasn’t out of control, and no one got hurt (to my knowledge), but the stress, both physical and mental, of these crowd situations is definitely something I will not miss.

After about 20 minutes of being cattle herded, we made it though the gates and into the piazza. The seating area was still fairly empty, and we had a wide choice of options. The seating areas had been fenced off for what looked to be a processional area, so I asked a Swiss Guard if the Pope would be passing though the area we were in, and he said yes. So we got our seats along the railing and waited for the mass to start. Unfortunately, whether it was the language barrier, or perhaps an audible called by the Pope, there was no procession through the crowd as we had expected, and the clergy simply emerged from the main door of St. Peter’s out onto the stairs where the altar was set up.

The mass was introduced by a marching band who processed from around the colonnade through the piazza. Once mass began, there was a very respectful atmosphere throughout the piazza. I had expected some outbursts from a crowd of 80,000 people, but the mass was very enjoyable and was another unforgettable experience in Rome. The mass was said mostly in a mixture of Latin and Italian, but some parts were reserved for other languages. The second reading was said in English, and all of the petitions were read in various foreign languages. We were quite surprised to find that we would actually get to receive communion at mass, and were the first ones to do so from the priest who came to our area.

After the mass, the Pope retreated into St. Peter’s only to emerge from the recognizable window from which he addressed the crowds below, issuing the Urbis et Orbis, the annual blessing given by the Pope at Easter.

Getting back out of the piazza was harder than getting in, as the crowd who had arrived over a span of about 4 hours was now all leaving at once. We made it out in one piece, and made our way (slowly) out of the crowds and across the river to Piazza Navona for lunch.

Easter in Rome was something I was really excited about experiencing before I even got here, and it was definitely worth putting up with the crowds to take part in such awesome events.


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