Time for a story…it seems fitting to give a little background about Rome for those who’ve never lived in or visited the Eternal City. While it might seem like some mythical Catholic wonderland where once-in-a-lifetime moments are, well, once in a lifetime, I’m sorry to say that it’s not quite that “mythical.” Yes, it’s beautiful; that’s why they call it “bella Roma”. Yes, there are once-in-a-lifetime moments; if one hangs around long enough, though, it probably becomes twice or three times in a lifetime. Without crushing anyone’s hopes and dreams about the heart of Catholicism, I have a story to tell…
While you may have seen a picture or two on FaceBook about a certain recent opportunity I had to be in the Sistine Chapel, here’s the “rest of the story.” Various “regular” occurrences in the Vatican or with the Holy Father are at least somewhat known by Catholics in the city, especially by the American priest residence, which forms the single largest community of priests in the city of Rome. Among these “regular” occurrences is the praying of Evening Prayer in the Sistine Chapel, at least during Advent and Lent. While it’s known that such things occur, it’s not always easy to get in to such events; as I said before, however, if you stick around long enough, your odds drastically improve.
A week ago this past Thursday afternoon, I received an email from a Jesuit priest whom I have met since arriving in Rome, who happens to work for the Vatican Observatory. As an employee of the Vatican, he apparently had come into possession of two tickets for Evening Prayer at the Sistine Chapel. While the email was fairly vague on details, I knew what “Evening Prayer at St. Peter’s” meant because other guys at the Casa had previously had the opportunity to attend this prayer service in the Sistine Chapel. Having not yet visited the Sistine Chapel since my arrival in Rome, I knew this would be the best way to experience the chapel.
For the record, those who normally visit the Sistine Chapel do so while on the tour of the Vatican Museums. While this sounds wonderful, it actually involves mobs of people who sometimes mistake a “chapel” for an “art gallery” and fail to behave appropriately. Thus, the dull roar of the crowd is countered by the regular announcement over the PA system to be quiet and not take any photos. If it sounds like a less than edifying experience, you’re right. Evening Prayer, on the other hand, included none of the above; there were no mobs, no prohibition against photos, and of course, time for silent reflection and chanted prayer in one of two of the Papal Chapels inside the Apostolic Palace.
Thus, when I got the email, all other commitments paled in comparison, and I immediately accepted the offer, not only because I enjoy spending time with this other priest, but because it would mean a unique visit to the Sistine Chapel.
As an aside, the Sistine Chapel, as you may well know, is famous for being the place in which the Holy Father is elected. Likewise, it is truly a chapel which contains some of the most beautiful and famous art in Christendom. It is designed in such a way as to tell the story of salvation in art. The left wall contains six paintings (frescos) by several Renaissance (1481-1482) painters depicting scenes from the life of Moses. On the right wall are six paintings by a handful of painters depicting the life of Christ, including the famous Delivery of the Keys by Pietro Perugino. The arrangement of these paintings is meant to show the life of Moses as a prefigurement or foreshadowing of the life of Jesus Christ. Even more impressive, perhaps, are the ceiling frescoes and the painting behind the altar by Michelangelo. The ceiling depicts the story of creation from the beginning through the flood, thus encompassing the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. The painting of the Last Judgment shows the conclusion of the history of the world, in which Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. These artists, instilled with the Catholic faith, sought to express that same faith through their work.
It was in this place that we had the opportunity to pray Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, which, as priests, we are obligated to pray daily for the Church and for the whole world. The chapel, filled with priests, religious brothers and sisters, and numerous laity, was used for its proper function, namely, a place in which to worship the living God. One of my first thoughts, upon entering the chapel, regarded the size of the chapel. Perhaps, given the importance of this chapel, I expected it to be much larger, but it really isn’t as big as one might expect. Nonetheless, it’s importance and beauty more than makes up for the size. In addition, the beauty of the prayers in this holy place, adorned with sacred art that naturally points the mind and heart to God, was inescapable. It reminded me that, in fact, one of the main purposes of magnificent art and architecture in places of worship should have the effect of drawing us up and eliciting an “Oh, my God” in the truest and most reverent understanding of that expression, for good religious art and architecture is meant to draw our eyes as well as our minds and hearts physically up and spiritually up to into wonder and awe of the majesty of the living God.
Following the praying of Evening Prayer, the priest who had invited me made it clear that he wasn’t in a hurry to leave. I was more than okay with that because the security personnel allowed us to be in the chapel for nearly a half hour after the end of Evening Prayer and to take as many pictures as we wanted. Further, I realized that it would be a long time, if ever, before I would again have the opportunity to be in this holy place in such an intimate way. Having been asked by the other priest with me several times if I wanted to take more pictures or have my picture taken before these amazing works of art, I distinctly remember thinking and remarking that no picture would be able to capture the beauty of this holy place. To fully grasp it, you’ll just have to experience it yourself.
In the end, it proved to be yet another reason to give thanks to God for the opportunity to spend these years living in “the heart of the Church.” It provided yet another way to re-consider the story of our salvation through the eyes of some very talented artists. Lastly, it was a very fine way to spend one Friday night in the Eternal City!