On Sunday, March 13, I had a complete “free” day because our team had scheduled nothing for the group. I took the opportunity to get some needed rest. I rose a bit later than usual, used some morning time to pray and think, and then went to the main service at St. Peter’s at 10:30 a.m. I had many different opportunities for Sunday service but thought, “How many opportunities will I get to go to St. Peter’s Basilica for worship on a Sunday?” So with a light mist in the air, and the first non-sunny day of my journey, I was off for a fifteen minute walk.
I arrived at St. Peter’s in time for the service but the lines were huge. I thought, “This is promising. So many people coming to church on this day. I am thrilled.” I was glad to finally get into the basilica only to find that these hordes of people were not going to the Mass. These were “tourists” going in to see the art and take photos. As I got nearer to the front of the church I realized that the crowd might be less than 700 or so people in worship. There was a rope blocking me from the worship seating area itself so I could not go forward and sit down. I stood throughout the service.
The service included the usual Catholic liturgy but most all of it was in Italian. I felt like a guest in Corinth since I could not understand the language spoken in the public service. Once in awhile I picked up a prayer or a chanted response since I know much of the liturgy. All in all I was disappointed by not being able to really enter into the whole liturgy with my mind comprehending it. (I later picked up an Ordo Missae Celebrandae. This guide had the Spanish and English translations of the liturgy. How I wish I had been given one before the service began!)
I was struck by the whole atmosphere. While the Mass was going on far more people were touring behind the service than were in the service. People were talking, snapping photos, etc. I know this happens in similar places but it was a total distraction to me. I had to think, “Surely there could be a way to keep people from talking and taking photos during a service going on in the same building!”
Most of those in the service took little obvious part in what was happening, or so it seemed by those around me. Only a few had the Ordo in their hands and almost no one sang when responses were sung in the liturgy. (Catholics are not generally great singers for sure!) There was no sermon, as such, and two Bible text readings. The most recognizable parts of the service for me were The Apostles’ Creed and The Lord’s Prayer.
When it came time to take the Eucharist I debated what to do. I was not going to take the bread and wine since I am not Catholic and the Roman Church does not welcome non-Catholics to the celebration except in rare instances. I decided to do what I’ve done in many Catholic contexts and go forward, asking for a prayer-blessing. I said to the priest, who I realized later was a Cardinal when he put on a red hat in the recessional, “I am a non-Catholic Christian and would like your blessing.” As is the typical practice he made the sign of the cross on my forehead.
I do confess that I found myself internally wrestling with a number of ecumenical issues during this time at St. Peter’s. I am simply not persuaded of Catholic dogma about the Mass. I am strongly persuaded that the Eucharist is much more than a memorial but I do not find the Catholic dogma either biblical or convincing. (It is wrong, by the way, to assume that all Protestants hold the same view of the bread and wine and thus of what happens in the Supper. Strong “Catholic polemics” may flourish in such a context but honest conversation and discussion about our very real differences is the great need of this hour. See my book, '>Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper.) In fact, no other church holds the precise view of the Eucharist as that carefully and repeatedly defined by the Catholic Church. I am just not persuaded that the view Rome holds is that of either the Scripture or the early church fathers. This response of mine is common to all non-Catholics and includes the interpretation of the Eucharist held by the Orthodox Church and all Protestant churches. (They clearly differ from one another but their view is not Roman!) The opportunity for real dialog is open, and must continue, but I do not see anything on the horizon that will hasten our mutual agreement. The best we can do for now is continue to discuss and listen. Thus communion truly is “the table that divides.” I feel great sadness about this reality. I deeply felt it in St. Peter’s on March 13.
Some Catholics say to me, “Get over it. If you want to believe and act properly then just convert!” This response kills serious understanding and love and is genuinely unhelpful. It ends up sounding like the response of fundamentalist Protestants who reject Catholics for their belief about the body and blood of Christ and then accuse them of offering the re-crucified Christ in every Mass. We must be honest and work humbly at doing better in this huge area of disagreement. I often comment (on this blog) about evangelicals who treat Catholics poorly. I must say, at this particular point, that I have had my share of poor response when I have tried to discuss the meaning of the Eucharist with some Catholics. (Such people are usually not priests, and they are never serious ecumenists. I understand the emotions run deep but I long for a richer and more Christ-like response.)
After the service I went out into Vatican Square for the Pope’s noon (Angelus) message. He spoke from the famous window of his apartment in the Vatican. The crowds were not large but when he spoke in different languages various groups cheered when they heard greetings in their native tongue. He prayed for those suffering in the Middle East and for the horrific problems related to the Japan earthquake of March 11. His words were brief and pastoral. Clearly he is loved but the love of, and for, John Paul II must have electrified such crowds when he spoke in this same place. Pope Benedict XVI is a more private and quiet man and seems to occasionally rise to public occasions. He will never have the charisma and warmth of John Paul II.
My afternoon and evening was very private and quiet. I did some shopping for gifts. In the late evening I attended a time of sung prayer at the evening prayers of the Sisters of St. Bridget. (Again, it was all in Italian and impossible to follow.) I also enjoyed another restful evening in a lovely Italian restaurant on my piazza and then imbibed more gelato, just like Chris Castaldo told me to do. (Some counsel I will listen to religiously.)
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