A perfect spring day: warm and sunny, but not too hot, with a gentle breeze and some high clouds. All the trees on the Lungotevere have burst out into full leaf. Luckily, I'd read in an Italian newspaper yesterday that Daylight Saving Time begins in Italy today, and not next week, as it does in the States; otherwise I would have missed the marvelous Easter mass at my very own parish church, S. Maria in Trastevere, at 10:30 a.m., and the incomparable experience of being in the piazza of St. Peter's at noon for the pope's Easter blessing. The last time I'd been in Rome for a major Church holiday was during my first visit to Rome in 1968, when I watched Pope Paul VI celebrate the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, the co-patron saints of Rome.
For this holiday I decided to get as dressed up as I'm able to here, given the clothes I'd brought with me: black slacks and black ankle boots, a cream-colored blouse and a long beige jacket, along with a multi-colored silk scarf/shawl I bought here a few weeks ago. As it turned out, not many Italians bother to dress up for Easter Sunday Mass. Most men were wearing exactly what they wear every day: loafers, dark slacks, a shirt open at the neck and a suede or quilted jacket. There were hardly any suits and ties in evidence, except on old men. Women were slightly more dressed up, but not by much. Nobody was wearing an "Easter bonnet." Even the readers of both sexes who participated in the service were informally dressed, and some of the men looked decidedly seedy. Recalling that S. Maria in Trastevere hosts the Communità di Sant'Egidio, a charitable organization devoted to helping Rome's "problem people," I couldn't help wondering if some of the scruffier readers had been promised a hot meal in return for their participation in the service.
The church was brilliantly lit up with both electric lights and candles, plus, as the sun became higher, light poured in through the south windows. Like all of Rome's oldest churches, S. Maria in Trastevere is oriented with its altar end in the west, so that the priest celebrating Mass faces east, toward Jerusalem. As sunshine filled the church the 12th-century mosaics of the apse, among the most beautiful in Rome, gleamed with colors and gold -- an absolutely splendid sight. Clouds of incense, caught in the beams of sunlight, looked like angels' wings. Nothing is more beautiful than a mass conducted in one of Rome's ancient churches, and you can't get more ancient than this one. Although the present church was built in the 1100s, the Christian history of the site goes back to the first century. Just to think about attending a church service on the very spot where St. Peter's first group of Roman converts gathered is awe-inspiring.
The mass was easy to follow, even for a non-Catholic such as myself, since each person attending received a printed program with the entire text of the service (except for the priest's brief sermon). The music was quite good, although I never did figure out where the choir was, unless it was the little group of people in street clothes, up to the right of the altar, who didn't look like they were doing anything. The acolytes were tiny children in white gowns. The oldest couldn't have been more than 7 and several were girls, all of them well-behaved and adorable.
The service included several particularly lovely moments. One was the handing out and lighting of candles. Everybody received one, and people passed the flame along from person to person until the entire church glowed with hundreds of flickering flames. At a later point in the service the two officiating priests walked down each aisle, smiling and sprinkling everyone with holy water. But they didn't just sprinkle it: one priest held a bowl with the water while the other dipped a small bouquet of fresh flowers into the bowl and shook the drops of water off the flowers and onto the parishioners. I'm hardly the first person to note the almost pagan exuberance of Rome's religious celebrations. A bouquet-bearing priest shaking consecrated water off of flowers and onto the faithful would have been equally at home in an ancient Roman rite of spring.
The service ended with what can only be described as a bang: a lusty, rhythmic chorus of "Canta alleluja, Cristo è risorto," accompanied by guitars, tambourines and a loud bass drum! People practically danced out the doors and into the sunshine, many of them heading straight for the cafés and restaurants that line two sides of the piazza. Others paused to chat by the fountain in the middle of the piazza, the oldest still functioning in Rome, its waters first brought to the site by the emperor Augustus, about a decade before the birth of Christ. It's not hard to imagine St. Peter, as dusty and travel-weary as some of those who refresh themselves there today, stopping to wash his feet and splash some water on his face before beginning his missionary efforts in Rome.
Since the service at S. Maria in Trastevere ended by 11:30 a.m., I had enough time to rush over to St. Peter's by bus, and although I arrived a little bit past noon, the pope was still seated in front of the temporary altar at the top of the steps of the basilica, in the process of offering his multi-lingual blessing "urbi et orbi:" to the City and to the World. The piazza was packed with several hundred-thousand people, all of them listening in respectful silence as the elderly, ailing John Paul II worked his way through dozens of languages, with few pauses and no fumbles. Each blessing produced a response of cheering from the groups of people who speak that language. Some languages, like Turkish and Bulgarian, elicited only a few sparse claps, but of course there was a huge roar for Polish, and a smaller but delighted cheer from some Irish pilgrims when the pope offered his blessing in Gaelic. At the end of the blessings, the white "popemobile," which looks like a cross between a small truck and a customized Jeep, glided up the ramp that had been constructed over the front steps of St. Peter's and whisked the pope on a brief turn around the area in front of the church. As the pope and his curious car made their way through the cheering, waving crowd, a military band played some snappy marches and the giant bells in the church's south belfry began to peal. The racket was impressive, and wonderfully Roman.
Where the pope finds the strength to carry on through these long services in the hot sun, I'll never know. Perhaps it's his faith, or maybe his strong Slavic constitution wedded to heroic willpower, or some combination of all of these. According to the Italian newspapers, he steadfastly refuses to use a wheelchair, although a specially designed one has been ready and waiting for him since February. He also refuses to revive the use of that ancient form of papal conveyance, the "sedia gestatoria," a sedan-chair held aloft on four poles and carried on the shoulders of a dozen strong men. Vatican officials are reported to be tearing their hair over the logistics of getting the increasingly immobilized pope from one place to another, both in the outside world and within the multi-level mazes of the Vatican palaces. But the pope carries on somehow. Frail, hunched and trembling, his voice hoarse and his words often slurred, he refuses to give in to his infirmities, and he still exudes an extraordinary spiritual authority. Although I hardly ever agree with anything the pope says, other than his repeated pleas for world peace, I can't help but admire him.
Among the many people in the crowd who were holding banners, there was also a child sitting on his father's shoulders and holding up a large balloon in the form of a bright-blue dolphin. Seeing this, I remembered the ancient Greek and Roman symbolism of the dolphin as the creature that carries the souls of the deceased across perilous waters, from the world of the living to the Elysian Fields, the land of the dead-- the pagan version of Paradise. As I wondered about whether John Paul would survive to celebrate another Easter, the dolphin seemed a poignant portent. Banners and national flags were everywhere in Piazza S. Pietro. Not far from me I spotted a couple enthusiastically waving a small American flag, the only one I saw. As the service ended, I wormed my way through the crowd toward the couple with the flag, in order to tell them that I appreciated the sight of the Stars and Stripes. The couple turned out to be Polish; they'd immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, and they shared an equal delight and pride in being Polish like the pope and citizens of the United States of America. I chatted with them briefly before moving on across the vast piazza to Via S. Pio Decimo and then to the Lungotevere in Sassia, where I stood in a steadily increasing crowd for about half an hour, with no sign of the bus I needed. Eventually, I walked back home, along the pleasantly shady Lungotevere, with the river gleaming below, a short and easy walk in nice weather, and much better than being squeezed onto what was certain to be an extremely crowded bus.
As I made my way back to my apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood, I realized that this is the first time I've ever been both away from home and alone on a major holiday. But rather than feeling depressed or lonely, I felt exhilarated, thrilled and deeply moved by the ancient rituals, ceremonies and spectacles I'd witnessed and participated in, and the glorious architectural backgrounds against which they took place. Yet again, the "city of my soul" had given me a perfect Roman day.