At 7:00am the activity at St Peter’s begins. The doors are opened and priests start to arrive at the basilica. I was with them yesterday and this morning. In our cassocks we converged on the great basilica and made our way to the splendid sacristy off the North aisle. There a cadre of boy altar servers and sacristans help each priest vest, find him a missal in his own language and then an altar boy in purple cassock and surplice walks with the priest to one of the many altars within the basilica.
This morning I celebrated Mass with two American friends at one of the side altars in the upper church. This was the altar of SS Processus and Martinian. Processus and Martinian were two wardens of the Mamertine prison where St Peter was imprisoned. They listened to his preaching, were converted and eventually tortured and martyred. The saints were originally buried in a cemetery on the Via Aurelia, then eventually their relics were placed here in 1605. You can read about the saints and the altarpiece here.
In one of those “co-incidences” of which God is so fond of, last night I received an email from a priest named Martin who is experiencing terrible health problems. He has no hope but for a miracle, so I was happy to offer Mass for Father Martin at the altar of St Martinian.
Saying Mass in St Peter’s is a simply awesome experience. So many emotions and thoughts swirl through your mind. First of all is the solidarity and unity we have through the ongoing ministry of Peter–Christ’s vicar on earth. At St Peter’s it is all vividly communicated in the solidity of the church, the splendor of the artwork and the simplicity and antiquity of the Mass. Here the apostle died and was buried. Here the Mass has been offered for nearly two thousand years. Here, as I did this morning, millions of priests down through the ages have risen early and gone quietly about their business of saying Mass, hearing confessions and then gone about their work as pastors of the flock.
You also experience the unity of the whole church. I was there from America–privileged and blessed to be a Catholic priest, but as I looked around the other priests were young and old, European, African, Indian and Asian. Furthermore, as you wander around the basilica you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. Sculptures and mosaics, paintings and tombs, relics and reminders everywhere not only of all the great popes, but also the great saints–some who you know well and some like Processus and Martinian who you have only just met for the first time.
Also, you experience the church ever ancient–ever new. I celebrated Mass over the relics of the two jail wardens of St Peter, but as I walked back to the sacristy I walked past the relics of Pope John XXIII–soon to be canonized, and as I walked out of the church stopped to pray again at the tomb of Pope John Paul II. Here lies Pope St Gregory the Great and there the relics of Pope St Pius X. Everywhere you look the history of the church is captured and kept not as a dull museum, but alive with faith and alive with the life of Christ as Mass is celebrated and the people worship. If you ever visit Rome, this is when you want to visit St Peter’s. Get up early and see the church alive as it should be. Later in the day it will be thronged with tourists. They are welcome, but their flashing cameras and uncomprehending, yet wondrous eyes leave you disenchanted and disappointed.
Instead, even if you do not travel with a priest who says Mass for you, wait outside the sacristy or ask the attendants if a priest is saying Mass in English. They will assist you and I expect any priest will be happy for you to join him in prayer. To make your experience more complete take time to read some church history. Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes is an excellent accessible history of the papacy. Go here for a comprehensive interactive website tour of St Peter’s.
Finally there are my own personal feelings. I’m pinching myself. How did this happen? How did a boy from Bob Jones end up as a Catholic priest having the amazing privilege of celebrating the Mass at all? How did a foolish sinner like myself ever get to such a graced place? What an amazing mercy that I should be here–such a self-centered man yet given so many blessings? What wondrous grace is this? I know at a very great depth why we call it Eucharist because it is a sacrifice of praise and an eternal offering of thanksgiving, and what do I have to be thankful for? For everything. That’s it. For everything, for all is a gift if we only have eyes to see.