On Going to the Wrong Mass in Italy

For the past two weeks I have been in Europe on business.  The first weekend I was there I went to a Sunday night mass at a Jesuit parish in Granada:  the Church of the Sacred Heart.  It was unremarkable, and I refer you to a previous post where I discussed going to mass in Spain.

On the second weekend I was in Rome, and the choices of where to go to mass were overwhelming.  I ended up ruling out St. Peter’s because of the lines.  On Saturday I stood in line for two hours to get into the basilica, and there is no separate line for mass attendance.  Indeed, I was quite surprised to the extent which the major churches in Rome act simultaneously as liturgical centers and tourist attractions, with mass being said and at the same time tour groups being led through the church.   I guess this is inevitable, given the importance of tourism in Rome, but there is also an Italian cultural streak that is quite relaxed about the rules.  The signs all say that tourism is not allowed during services, but I have seen guards standing in front of these signs chatting amiably (but quietly) with tourists while mass is being said at the other end of the church.   To American sensibilities this seems very disrespectful, but somehow in Italy it works.  On the other hand, all the major churches seem to have chapels for the Blessed Sacrament and these are scrupulously maintained as places of quiet prayer.

I did hear some of the music for the Saturday evening mass in St. Peter’s and it was quite lovely.  Despite some grumbling about the low quality of the papal choirs under Pope Benedict, I heard nothing to complain about.  I did not recognize any of the selections, so I cannot comment on what was chosen.

On Sunday, I decided, more or less at random,  to go to mass at St. John Lateran.  The website listed masses every hour on the hour, so after breakfast and packing, I set out to walk down.  My route took me past the Basilica of St. Mary Major, so I ducked inside.  They were in the middle of their high mass for the day.  The liturgy was the ordinary form in Latin.   Looking at some websites, it seems that Latin masses are fairly common at the larger churches in Rome, though definitely still in the minority—usually one mass out of five or six on Sunday.  (I didn’t see anything about EF masses, but I wasn’t looking, either.)

Arriving at St. John Lateran I went in to discover that they were in the middle of the 10 am mass, though by my watch it was pushing 10:45—my first clue that mass times in Rome are somewhat more flexible than the clockwork schedules on their websites.  I went into the side chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.  This also gave me the opportunity to listen to the music, which was a small choir that had lovely  harmonies; all the sections seemed to be Baroque.  I am not really a fan of the Baroque, but they provided a very peaceful backdrop while praying.    The mass itself was quite well attended, and responses were actually audible from the congregation, even in the closed off chapel where I was praying.

I was therefore looking forward to the next mass:  it was schedule for 11 but started around 11:10 or so.  I was disappointed in some ways.   It was sparsely attended, and was a de minimus production that reminded me of going to church in Spain.   There was no music and the congregation mumbled its responses.  The lectors were okay—my Italian is very rusty but they were clear enough that I could piece together which reading it was.   I was initially thrown by the first reading from Job (Job 7:1-7) as in Italian it kept using the word mercenario, which is usually (and obviously) translated as “mercenary”.  It turns out that it has a figurative meaning as “hireling” which is the sense used in Job.   As has been my experience in Spain, the homily seemed longer than is typical in the US; my Italian, however, gave up the ghost, as it were, in trying to follow it.

The priest used Eucharistic Prayer II.  Receiving communion was the usual chaos I have experienced in both Spain and Italy:  rather than going up in the orderly fashion one sees in the US, people just decide, almost at random, when to go up.   At times it seems less a line than a rugby scrum (though without any physical contact!).  Actually, in my experience, Americans are the most orderly during communion of any Church I have visited.  The Germans are also very orderly as well, followed by the French, though somewhat less so.

One thing I did notice was that a large number of people left after receiving communion.   Some people still do this in the US, but my sense is that it has gotten less common.  Though, on the other hand, since I tend to sit very close to the front, I am not in a good position to judge if people are sneaking out or not.  At this mass, though, I noticed from the empty seats that a number of folks had left.

So, in terms of the overall liturgical experience, I chose the “wrong” mass.  This was counter-balanced by the awe inspiring nature of St. John Lateran, as can be seen in this picture (not mine—I almost never take pictures while traveling):


And it almost goes without saying that any mass has its riches.   Next time I am in Rome I may try to go to mass at a smaller church to see how mass differs there.  But this morning, despite the snow and cold—our third or fourth winter storm of the year—I am looking forward to the homely joys of mass in my home parish.   As Dorothy said, “there’s no place like home.”

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  • http://gravatar.com/glenmichael glenmichael

    as an American in Italy for over 30 yrs… I can confirm entirely your claims and frustrations. The only semblance of focussed worship is at early morning masses, attended by the over 60 crowd. Otherwise, it’s theme mass ( families ) or tourist attraction.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I am not so sure I would go so far as to say these masses lacked focused worship—my point is rather the low liturgical style.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    I could not help but chuckle at the fact that Mass was not started on time and the disorderly reception of communion.

  • David Gibson

    David, try mass at the Caravita community near San Ignazio next time. English language Mass done by Jesuits from the Greg, really wonderful.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks for the suggestion. Though since I want to practice, I try to go to mass in the local language.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    David – I was at St John Lateran just this last fall, and found the place awe-inspiring. Have you been to St Paul Outside the Walls yet?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Matt, no I have not. Despite going to Italy every one or two years since the late 90’s, this was my first trip to Rome, and I spent less than 48 hours in town. I really chose what to see at random. There are many, many more things I want to see.

  • Julia Smucker

    You’ve brought back a few of my own experiences here. In Haiti I was just learning the mass and so had nothing to compare it to yet, but there they do get up at random to take communion. But then they form a line once they’re up, so it looks much more orderly than your rugby scrum by the time they get there. They definitely have a more focused worship than the Protestant churches there, by far, which was what drew me to mass in the first place. That’s part of the power of ritual.

    I have never been to Rome but have definitely seen that liturgy/tourism combination in Paris. I imagine the same is the case in any major European city with that combination of Catholic history and frequent tourist traffic. In the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, although taking pictures is not allowed inside, there is constant circulation around the peripheries even while mass is being celebrated in the center area – along with what I came to think of as the professional shushers, scolding people in stage whispers for sneaking a photo or getting too loud. I found that somewhat distracting, but less so in a way than the constant camera flashes inside of Notre Dame.

    Having just moved and changed parishes within my current city, I notice certain differences even within the US. My “new” parish is one I had attended before and was actually the main inspiration for an earlier post about the futility of searching for the perfect mass. I remember having gotten the impression of it being a friendly and active parish, although the overall liturgical style leans a little more toward the “balloons and streamers” side (figuratively speaking, mind you) than I would like. But after a year at a parish that was more to my taste aesthetically but where participation often felt rather lifeless and left me dry, I am being reminded that the presence of strong and hospitable community can make places holy, in spite of anything else.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I do not remember the tourism in churches in Paris while mass is being said, but it has been many years since I was in France. In Spain (e.g. the Cathedral in Sevilla) they are pretty strict about restricting tourism while mass is being said.

    “Rugby scrum” is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but it really only loosely resembles a line, especially if people are jockeying to move left or right (as they do sometimes to receive communion from, say, a particular priest).

    Finally, you write:

    “But after a year at a parish that was more to my taste aesthetically but where participation often felt rather lifeless and left me dry, I am being reminded that the presence of strong and hospitable community can make places holy, in spite of anything else.”

    Yes, yes, YES!!! I am reminded of a powerful quote from Dorothy Day, taken from the epilogue to The Long Loneliness:

    “We are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and earthly life is a banquet too. This is true even with a crust of bread where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love. Love comes with community.”

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes, I read The Long Loneliness just a few months ago and really resonated with that.

  • trellis smith

    The cathedrals have always been and in fact were designed for the tourism industry. The ambulatories are specific to that purpose.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I think there is some truth to this: at least some cathedrals were pilgrimage sites—certainly the ones in Rome were. On the other hand, I wonder if conflating these buildings uses as pilgrimage destinations and also as public buildings (akin to the ancient Roman forum) obscures as much as it illuminates.

  • Kurt

    Receiving communion was the usual chaos I have experienced in both Spain and Italy: rather than going up in the orderly fashion one sees in the US, people just decide, almost at random, when to go up.”

    In defense of the non-AngloSaxons, this is actually correct. The practice of going up in the orderly fashion, particularly guided by ushers, violates the rule of drawing attention to those receiving and those not receiving.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Truthfully, the biggest problem I have with this approach is that it is harder to follow the people in the pew in front of me, and so harder to find my pew again. A silly thing perhaps, but speak the truth and shame the devil.

      • Kurt

        Oh, David, maybe in going back to a different pew, you’ll make a new friend!!! :)