Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

Mass Tourism – Rome

Posted by universalis on 23 May 2006

Sunday Mass is not the only kind of Mass. When I’m on holiday in a city I’m so energized that I usually wake up early, a lot earlier than my friends. Sneaking round the streets looking for a morning Mass is far better for the temper than sitting slumped in a chair grumpily reading the same page of the guidebook over and over again; and it’s a far better way of seeing a city from the point of view of the natives.

So this is why I found myself, on the first day of a visit to Rome (my ninth visit, my friend’s twelfth, her friends’ first) awake long before everyone else and wandering south from the Pantheon towards the church of S. Andrea della Valle. I thought it would be rather fun to hear Mass at the church that figures so prominently in the first act of Tosca. (We were planning to see Castel S. Angelo, which figures prominently in the last act of Tosca, the following day).

Like most Baroque churches, S. Andrea della Valle has grand heavy dark wooden doors that seem out of proportion to the entrance of a single person: only a procession could enter them without seeming absurd. But I slipped in, feeling invisible against the massive scale of the façade.

It turned out to be difficult to assess how closely the church resembled opera designers’ representations of it, because it was in the middle of some building works. This early Mass had been moved to a chapel attached to the sacristy: all dark wood and histrionic Baroque paintings.

I have forgotten every detail of that Mass except one. To my left, across the aisle and one row back, was a nun. She was very, very old and her face was one mass of wrinkles. It was one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen. I could see the glory of her soul burning its way through from the inside. In a year or two she would die and become a being so glorious that (as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory) we would be strongly tempted to worship it – if, that is, the mere contemplation of her did not reduce us to smouldering ashes.

I didn’t have a camera with me. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to ask her permission to photograph her – not without sounding like the crassest kind of tourist.

On the way back the air was still fresh and invigorating, and as I joined my friends for breakfast I was determined to go to early Mass every day for the rest of the trip. But in the end I didn’t, not even once.

6 Responses to “Mass Tourism – Rome”

  1. Sam Chamelin said

    Your story brought back many memories of my honeymoon to Ireland. Walking into a church in the southeast, I was acting quite the tourist until I saw a gruff man, kneeling silently, fingering his rosary beads. It was a very moving experience – its one of the few times I remember seeing “piety” personified. Praise God that in His good will He gives us opportunities to see, and better yet, to be, a picture of His faithfulness.

  2. Catherine Steel said

    I have to add my comment on the description of the beautiful old nun. My husband and I have just returned from Medjugorje in Bosnia. We were very struck by the beauty of the ordinary people that live there who have made a very profound commitment to God. In fact the franciscan friar who spoke to us about the visionaries there (who speak to Our Lady everyday) was the most beautiful man we have ever seen, with a voice to match and a fabulous sense of humour. Certainly heaven touches earth there.

  3. Ann Murray said

    One of the most consoling aspects of our faith has to be the universality of the Church. Reading the various postings on Mass Tourism confirms this. God is always near..and certainly never more than a block away.

  4. Stephen Clark said

    I think the point about looking for the daily mass when on holiday is a good one.
    I have a fond memory of being in Lourdes at 6 a.m. one December day and attending Mass at the grotto shrine. The celebrant and 9 out of 10 of the attendees were Japanese. There was something wonderful about the catholicity of that occasion.
    On another occasion I attended a Mass in the Anglican Cathedral in Hong Kong when a new dean was being installed. 95% of the congregation was Chinese (the new Dean was english!)the first hymn was a well known Anglican Hymn…Holy Holy Holy…as the singing began I realised everyone was singing in their own language. Very Pentecostal!! Very rich experiences.

  5. Irene Gomez said

    Your story brought tears to my eyes just being able to be there through your eyes, seeing the beautiful nun and embracing our faith, no matter where we are in the entire world. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us of the beauty in daily Mass (especially at the start of a brand new day) and the beautiful community that we all share in our faith. God Bless You!

  6. A memorable attendance for me at Mass was on a school trip when aged 12 to Ypres in Belgium, France to visit the WWI battlefields.
    At this time I was already a server in my home parish and had realised my vocation to priesthood a few years before, I had also just been Confirmed.
    We as a class were given some freetime to explore the town of Ypres, a beautiful reconstruction of the original gothic mediaeval town that had been obliterated during the war. I had already spotted the gothic Cathedral – which I didn’t know at the time had been rebuilt – and was drawn to the sound of its carillon playing the Lourdes hymn, on the hour every hour! I made up my mind then to spend some of my freetime paying a visit to God’s house.
    It was just after Noon when I entered the Cathedral and at one of the side altars Mass was beginning. I decided to join the congregation having already deduced that the celebration was a said Mass and that it wouldn’t take up all of my freetime to attend! The Mass was in French – not a problem, I had a smattering of the language – though no Mass book to follow. Imagine my young suprise then when I realised that I could follow the Mass by observing the actions of the Priest – the exact same actions of those of my own Parish Priest at home(this despite the fact that the Mass was of the Novus Ordo rite)! I answered the Mass in English whilst hearing it in French and while I couldn’t understand the readings I of course knew what was happening following the liturgical actions of the celebrant, I stood and sat and knelt with the congregation and knew exactly where we were in the liturgy and I exchanged the Peace and made my Communion. All of this time believing I was in an ancient space where the faithful had worshipped for centuries.
    This brought home to me in a very sudden and sensitive and wonderful way the universality of the Mass and of the Church. My little mind was blown away by the simplicity of the magnitude of what I had just realised and participated in, the all-embracing arms of the Sacrament reaching out despite language barriers, foreign spaces and history! This experience had a profound effect on my young life and strengthened my resolve to follow my vocation. God had spoken to me.
    When Mass was finished there was no coffee or fellowship, it was a lunchtime Mass for the workers and regular locals and everyone just silently melted away leaving me kneeling dumbstruck. I recovered myself and rejoined my class in the town hall – only then discovering from the display there the history of the rebuilding of the town and of how the Cathedral had been completely destroyed and rebuilt! This made the whole experience even more miraculous to me – as if I had been transported in time in that Cathedral – not knowing that it was actually only a few years old!
    I choke now remembering the innocency of my youth and faith at that time but also rejoice that now, a priest myself, I am able to create that same miracle every time I celebrate Mass and maybe, just maybe, what I experienced as a young Catholic in a foreign country may be felt by those young students and visitors to my own altar! DEO GRACIAS!

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