Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica

We did something very special this year for Easter: we attended the Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Maundy (or Holy) Thursday with our friend Jim and his daughter Tess.

The letter

It takes effort to get tickets to papal events during Holy Week.  Tickets to papal events are free, but the downside is you will have to jump through some hoops to get them. And, you need to request tickets early, as they are very limited.

Our first step was to send a request to the Prefettura della Casa Pontifex, the Prefecture of the Papal Household.  The Prefettura has only one way to contact them for such a request, which is by fax.  We sent our request in early January, or about 14 weeks before the event.  Three weeks later we received a formal letter (written in English) mailed to our place in Rome, signed by Il Prefetto.

The letterhead of the Prefettura

The letter instructed us to present the letter at the “Bronze Door … situated where the right-hand colonnade begins in St Peter’s Square,” to collect the tickets a day or two before the mass.  This meant when looking at the basilica, to go to the right as if toward the Vatican Museums.

Picking up the tickets (and lucky to keep my head)

Thus instructed, Jim, Tess, and I went to collect our tickets the day before Holy Thursday.  I showed the letter to the security staff, who said only one of us would be allowed through security.  Having gone through security, I proceeded up the S-curved colonnade.

It was as I cleared the second curve when my breath was taken away.  There was the pair of bronze doors at the end.  One door was closed, and in the remaining opening stood one of the famously garbed Swiss guards, complete with a halberd in hand.  Above the doorway was a lunette shaped fresco of a luminescent heavenly scene. The interior breadth of the colonnade appeared half as wide as where I’d gone through security, making it seem that no matter where I stood, the chap with the halberd could lop off my head with great ease.  This was a multi-whammy of art, architecture, and history all imposing a combined awesomeness upon the visitor.

The stoic Swiss Guards.

Before I could finish muttering “wow!” to myself, another guard in a Renaissance era uniform popped out from behind the closed door.  He inspected the letter, told me in his thick German Swiss accent to wait in a spot he pointed at, and walked inside.  I stood there awkwardly while the armed guard periodically and furtively glanced over at me.  I really, really, really wanted to take a picture but was afraid I’d lose my head whose last vision would be the fresco above the door.

The other guard eventually returned with an envelope with my name on it.  Inside were our gloriously green tickets.

Our very green tickets

The mass

The next day, our tickets in hand, we arrived at 8 a.m. sharp for the 9:30 mass.  There were 200 to 300 people already in line in the same area where we encountered security the day before.  There was a joyous feeling in the air, and we marveled at the many different orders of priests and nuns in the line.  There were some priests and nuns (and plenty of laypeople) who were clearly beaming, and I wondered if this would be their one visit to Rome in their lifetimes and their one opportunity to see the pope.

At 8:30, the line began to move forward, as people were permitted to go through the security check.  As we entered, we were each handed a booklet containing the songs that would be used during the mass.

The pretty little memorial booklet for the Chrism Mass

Then we followed the crowd through security and across St. Peter’s Square into the basilica.  We made a beeline for seats close to the center aisle … for reasons that will become obvious later in this post.  There was singing going on — and it was beautiful.  I was struck by how small St. Peter’s felt, versus the way it normally feels.  In fact, this was the first time I have been in St. Peter’s when it actually just felt like an everyday church, not at all the usual experience of wandering awestruck, looking up at the magnificent dome of Michelangelo and the great bronze baldaquin of Bernini.

St. Peter’s Basilica didn’t look all that big that day

Behind us were several young nuns who appeared to be from the order of St. Theresa. One of the nuns sang with great enthusiasm, albeit quite off-key.  It was utterly charming.

At 9:30, hundreds of white-clad priests joined Pope Francis in a long procession down the central aisle.  Today, these priests would renew the vows they had taken upon ordination.  Some were solemn but many could not hold back their enormous smiles — while taking some selfies with their smartphones!

The procession

Pope Francis delivered his homily, mostly in Latin (a handful of parts were in Italian), speaking of the truth, mercy, and joy of the Gospel, and how priests should embody those qualities.

A Swiss Guard stands while the congregation sits and listens

Seeing the Pope as compared to the baldaquin, suddenly I truly realized just how immense the basilica truly is,

Now you can see how truly enormous the baldaquin is.

The sacred oils to be used in the Sacraments for the upcoming year, in giant silver urns, were then blessed by the Pope.  The priests lined up throughout the basilica to give communion… and, then the recession out of the basilica began.  Tess snapped the most terrific shot of Pope Francis (at the top of this post), when he was just a few feet away, walking down the center aisle.  What an experience!