Easter had me reminiscing about one of my most memorable religious experiences, Palm Sunday at the Vatican. In 2011 three childhood friends and I set off to Italy and our vacation happened to fall around holy week, Settimana Santa. Our two-week trip started in Rome then went on to Cinque Terre, Florence and ended in Venice.
In Rome we stayed in a small apartment (lovingly nicknamed The Rabbit Hole) in the Piazza della Rotonda, right next to the Pantheon. We had plans to go to the Vatican twice, once to take a tour of the city and then a second time just to attend Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter’s Square. The first trek to the Vatican didn’t really go as planned. We booked our tour months in advance and we were told to go early to beat the crowds of visitors that arrive daily. According to our directions our destination was only a few kilometers west of our apartment so we decided to walk. Somehow on our stop for breakfast and getting sidetracked with the most delicious little Italian coffees we were lost. To make matters worse I had opted to wear a brand new pair of shoes (rookie mistake I will never make again). We weren’t even in line for the tour and my feet were already throbbing! After hopping into a cab only to realize we were close and then jumping out again we quickly approached the entrance and stumbled upon the lines of tourists snaking around the walled city. I knew there would be people from all over traveling to see the Vatican and there would be lines. In my mind I thought maybe like the wait for a roller coaster in Disneyworld, or a long bathroom line at a sports game but it was hard to grasp the image until we were actually there. To give you an idea in 2011 just over 5.1 million people visited the museum and that puts them into the same category as the Louvre or MOMA. We thankfully found our guide in time and spent the morning learning about the wonders of the Vatican, marveling at the Sistine Chapel and soaking in the history of the Catholic Church.
The Vatican, which is said to rest on the remains of St. Peter, is the smallest city-state in the world, and is home to the Pope and between 500 and 900 other inhabitants. After the Lateran Treaty in 1929 it now functions much like any other country, printing it’s own money, stamps, license plates, etc. The only difference is they have no taxation so all admission fees, sales, and donations generate income for the state. We started with a tour of the museum, which houses over 9 miles of artwork. The Sistine Chapel is one of the many highlights of the tour. From 1508 to 1512 Michelangelo painstakingly worked on the 130 foot long ceiling. The frescos depict a variety of biblical stories and you can spend what feels like an eternity with your head tilted staring at 5,000 square feet of breathtaking artwork. Even just looking up to admire the ceiling puts a pain in your neck so I can’t even imagine how Michelangelo painted on scaffolding hanging basically upside down for four years. It is believed that he suffered short-term eye damage from all the paint dripping onto his face as he worked. In the end the tour of the Vatican was worth the sore feet, packs of Band-Aids and war wounds.
Ok, so I’ll be honest. I was the last person on board to go to a holy mass while on vacation but Becky convinced the group it would be worth it and I’m glad that she did. Not very many people can say they were at a holy mass given by the Pope. We headed back to the Vatican on a much shorter route and followed a growing crowd into St. Peter’s Square. The square was designed and built by Bernini and is the largest in Rome. It sits in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and is surrounded by beautiful semi circular colonnades that outstretch around you like the arms of the church. The obelisk in the center of the square dates back to 37AD. It was a crisp, sunny spring morning and we found our place closer to the front of the crowd. Because palms aren’t readily available in Italy we were given olive branches to be blessed during the mass. Mass began with a huge processional of children and clergy carrying large palms and branches through the square. Pope Benedict XVI rode into the square on his little Pope-mobile and blessed the crowd and the palms. The mass was said in Latin and Italian and the words that traveled over the hushed crowd was hauntingly beautiful. The mass is free to the public and we were lucky to get close enough to the reserved seating to receive a program, which made the mass easier to follow. The mass is long so be prepared to go early and stand for a while, but the experience was well worth it. We left Rome feeling a little holier and headed by train to Cinque Terre to hike through the vineyards.
The Swiss Guard
The Swiss Guard was an idea conceived in the 1500’s by Pope Julius II. Originally bodyguards for the Pope, the guard serves as a military force for the Vatican. They are most known for their flamboyant Renaissance style attire inspired by Raphael’s frescos in the Papal apartments. All members of the guard must meet specific criteria. All guards must be a Swiss, Catholic male who is at least 5 feet 8 inches tall and is between the ages of 19-30. Each May 6th there is a swearing in ceremony to welcome new recruits. Armed with halberds the guard hasn’t been called to military duty in centuries and were predominately ceremonial. After the assassination attempt of the Pope in the 80’s the guards training involved more modern combat techniques.