Enormous white columns curve out from the large domed cathedral like arms beckoning you into its embrace. The largest cathedral in the world and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Basilica is impressive on first glance, and perhaps even more so inside.
The enormous piazza, filled to the brim during papal audiences, is more often seen with snaking lines baking under the relentless Roman sun. The white stone blinds your eyes, but not so much that the agents can’t see your bare legs or shoulders, and send you away with a simple nod and a set jaw. Dumbfounded visitors with cheap scarves tied around their waists are sometimes able to pass. A nicety; After all, this is the one of the holiest sites for a worldwide religion.
Despite being raised Catholic, I’ve have to admit that I considered St. Peter’s Basilica as a tourist attraction. It’s a must-see on any visit to Rome and the Vatican City. A loop through the major cathedral in any town of Italy is a must and in that sense I saw St. Peter’s as simply a more important major cathedral. That is, until I went for mass.
On a visit with my family, I wanted to try and include some new sights, new activities, to expand what I had already seen on my first visit. On my first trip to Rome we saw the Colosseum, this time around we toured the Colosseum at night. On my first visit we toured the Basilica and the Vatican Museums, this time around we looked up mass times. We wanted to celebrate mass in the world’s most important Catholic Cathedral.
Whether religious or not, a country’s religion is a part of its cultural identity. You can visit Italy as a pilgrim or a secular tourist, but ignoring its Catholic heritage means ignoring a huge part of the country’s history, culture and mindset.
“In my travel experience if you understand the religion that permeates a society, it makes your sightseeing come to life and it helps you connect better with the people.”
– Rick Steves
Maybe you’ve never been to mass in your life, but I assure you if you have the patience, it will give you an entirely new view on that cathedral, on that country. Though an admittedly lax Catholic, I’ve celebrated masses in the Duomo of Milan, in Notre Dame in Paris and in St. Peter’s Basilica. I could never have anticipated the influence of the latter, however.
Arriving more than an hour early, we ducked into the dark church, our eyes adjusting from the outside sun to the dim, eery light of the massive cathedral. Once inside, it’s hard to know where to start. Huge expanses of marble floor lead out in all direction, this way there are crypts, that way frescoes. Directly under the dome of the Basilica sits Bernini’s Baldachin: four twisting gold columns climb up to the heavens in a massive Baroque display, finishing with an elaborate canopy. The pillars rise 66 feet high. Underneath the canopy is the high altar of the Basilica, supposedly directly above the tomb of Saint Peter. It’s so elaborate its baffling. Created specifically to show the visual paradox between the enormous scale of the structure and the insignificance of the people beneath, I’d say it succeeded.
Attempting to avoid, at least for the moment, the overwhelming grandiosity of the place, we headed straight back to the apse of the Basilica, the head of the cross-shaped church. Known as the Altar of the Chair, mass is celebrated here multiple times per week. The “chair” refers to the Chair of St. Peter, or Throne of Saint Peter, a relic housed there that is “traditionally held to be the Episcopal chair on which St. Peter sat as he instructed the faithful of Rome.” (via)
Men in black blocked the way into a small seating area, intimidating visitors who didn’t know what it was for. Nevertheless we approached and they allowed us in without a word. Already headier than any mass I’d been to in my 13 years of Catholic school, the atmosphere was heavy, holy, dust mites floated through a small window above the altar and the weight of the marble floor, columns, walls surrounded us.
We stood up as Mass began and rows and rows of Bishops, priests, deacons and altar boys filed in to the makeshift chapel. To my surprise the mass was held in Latin. Though I couldn’t understand a word, I could respect the importance of this experience to the people around me. Tourists filled the cracks around the barriers that kept them out (the seating was full, the area closed). They raised cameras above their heads and snapped pictures, I noticed more than one chewing gum. Yet in this gated-off area heads were dipped, eyes closed, tears filled the eyes of more than one person.
In our super-tense world situation religion is far-too often avoided. It’s hated on, fought against, ignored. We often avoid its controversy, forgetting that you don’t have to be religious to respect a religion. You don’t have to support a religion to respect it. But here, with incense and Gregorian chants, ancient organs and traditional Latin I could truly understand the weight of this Cathedral. More than just a tourist attraction to tick off a list, its importance has stood the test of time. Sitting there that morning I realized that searching the times, waking up early, waiting in line, being there fully, without a camera, without an agenda, I was participating in the Basilica’s history, I was experiencing it fully, not touring it haphazardly. I was more than a tourist. I was a participant.
Whether secular or Catholic, a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica is an experience to remember.
How to Celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica:
Like I indicated above, there is a strict dress code to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. No shorts, bare shoulders or short skirts or dresses. You may get through security, but attendants at the door will then turn you away. Dress appropriately not only to avoid waiting for hours under the hot sun only to be turned away, but also out of respect.
St. Peter’s is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m April – September and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. October – March.
Masses are held daily at 8:30 am in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Eucharistic Adoration until the 16:45 Benediction and on the hour from 9 – 12 at the Altar of St. Joseph in the Left Transept. The Sunday schedule is:
9:00 – For the Parish of St. Peters
10:30 – Altar of the Chair (in Latin)
11:30 – Chapel of Blessed Sacrament
12:15 – Altar of the Chair
13:00 – Altar of St. Joseph
16:00 – Altar of the Chair
17:00 – Vespers at the Altar of the Chair followed by Mass
17:45 – Altar of the Chair
All masses are in Italian unless otherwise indicated.
If you want to attend mass, be sure to arrive well in advance (even up to two hours on a Sunday or during summer) to have time to get through security. Once seats fill up you won’t be allowed to enter.