Sunday, 21 December 2008

4. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel

The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is located half way up the nave of St Peter's, on the right. It is a particularly splendid chapel where, I am told, until the reign of Pope John Paul II, the Blessed Sacrament was only reserved during a Papal Mass for the purpose of the Pope visiting it before celebration. In the Extraordinary Form, a bishop visiting a Church always goes first to visit the Blessed Sacrament, almost before he does anything else. Now, I am pleased to write, the Lord stays there all the time, often exposed, and it may be visited only by those intending to pray. You'll see Pope John blessing to right and left as he goes in, and the bystanders kneeling to receive the blessing. This blessing-while-processing is another episcopal custom that has, by and large, been dropped in this country, though I remember Cardinal Hume doing it. It is still a part of the rite of the consecration of a bishop that, once the mitre is on, he does a sort of a lap of honour of the cathedral, blessing as he goes.
Anyway, the Holy Father has got off the sedia and walks into the chapel to kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament—Peter before Christ, which is why, no doubt, the Sistine Choir massacre Perosi's setting of Tu es Petrus: thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
You will see just how huge the manta is when Mgr Dante, the papal master of ceremonies, drapes it over the faldstool at which the pope kneels. The Holy Father is not allowed long to pray; before long Mgr Dante is tugging at the manta —come on, come on; that's enough praying!.
Though of course there may be another explanation. The Sistine Choir have, let us say, a unique sound. They get the notes right, more or less, but the singers (who often moonlight as chorus in the Rome opera) are chosen not for their melodious voices, but for their sheer prodigious lungpower. Not so much bel canto as can belto. Things have not changed; indeed, I think the Sistine Shriekers have, if anything, got worse. I remember watching the plumbing-in of Pope Benedict and seeing the Sistine Shriekers shrieking from the atrium of St Peter's basilica. They were singing the Sanctus, and were looking every which way, but not at the conductor, who was ineffectually whirling his arms round and round, the only musical direction being, seemingly 'louder! louder! louder!' Curiously, they are rather proud of what they are pleased to call their style; Mgr Domenico Bartolucci, who was conducting at this coronation and extraordinarily was still in office until disgracefully sacked in 1997 (disgracefully, I mean, by the manner in which it was done; it would be hard to fault it as a musical decision), well, old Bartolucci would vigorously defend the mode of singing, each singer making what he will of the music without regard to the overall sound, saying that this was the tradition in the choir. Well, it's time it wasn't, is all I can say.
Bartolucci's predecessor was Lorenzo Perosi, who wrote this setting of Tu es Petrus. He held the job from 1898 (when there was still at least one castrato in the choir) until his death in 1956. This means that for a hundred years, the Sistine was in the 'care' of only two men. In the early 1920s Perosi briefly went nuts—one manifestation of this was held to be the fact that he kept trying to become a Protestant. Bartolucci didn't have much time for Perosi, actually, saying that it was he who was responsible for the decline in Church music.
At 1.54 for a few seconds, Cardinal Yoda from Star Wars you can see.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

3. Into the Basilica

Pope John now gets back onto the sedia and is carried into St Peter's. The band of the Noble Guard blow the dust off their car horns and ponderously parp out Silveri's Marcia Nobile from the window overlooking the nave over the main entrance. During the period of non expedit, from the Risorgimento until the Lateran Treaty, at least one Pope was crowned at this window rather than on the balcony outside its opposite across the Sala della Benedizione which lies over the porch.
The Holy Father heads about half way up the nave, and then turns right into the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. You can see the little tonsures on the heads of the assisting clerics at about 4.32: these mini-tonsures have now entirely vanished.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

2. Obeisance of the Canons

The Pope now arrives in the atrium of St Peter's, and the sedia is carefully set down. Mgr Dante struggles to find and release the Holy Father's feet from the yards of precious cloth, and, wobbling a little, the Pope moves to the little throne that has been prepared. He sits down, and is joined by Cardinals Canali (left) and Ottaviani (right). 
The canons of St Peter's now come and do homage. Technically it is they, not the Pope, who are in charge of things in St Peter's; traditionally they even presented the Pope with a little purse of money as a stipend after each celebration 'for a Mass well sung'. Therefore they are the first to welcome him to the basilica. Most of the canons are priests past their prime and in sort-of retirement which is why some of them are a little less athletic than others. Their job had always been to sing the Divine Office in St Peter's each day, for which they were granted a substantial apartment, their living, and some pocket money. The office ceased to be sung in its entirety in about 1948, but the canons are still there, never having been fired.

Monday, 3 November 2008

1. The Descent of the Scala Regia

The start is an early one, for the ceremony was a long one. The procession is assembled in the Vatican palace, on the piano nobile—which is to say, on an upper storey. That means that the procession has to descend the great staircase which lead from the bronze doors into Bernini's great piazza to get to St Peter's. Because the date was 4th November, the procession did not, as it might have done, go out of the bronze doors into the square and enter the basilica through the main entrance. Instead it turned right and went in the short way. Which is to say, the long way, only not as long as if they'd gone the other way. If I'm making sense.
The new pope is upstairs still, above the Cortile San Damaso, near the Sistine Chapel, in the Sala della Falda, getting dressed in the long falda, a special papal vestment worn under the alb and looking rather like a sort of alb extension, making a train several feet long. Once this is on, he moves to the next room, the Sala degli Paramenti, where the cardinals assistant are already vested, and help the pope on with the alb, and stole. On top of this is the papal turbo-cope called the mantum—just like an ordinary cope, but longer. Both the falda and the mantum absolutely require the help of others simply to be able to walk. Then the golden mitre goes on. On another point, Pope John may well have had some breakfast, for his predecessor had relaxed the fasting laws, and it was going to be at least three hours until his communion.
When the ceremony has built up enough head of steam to be beyond the point of no return, the papal Ceremoniere, here Mgr Enrico Dante, an interesting man in his own rite—look at the link—gives the command extra!  ('out you go!'), says a quick prayer, crosses his fingers, tries to remember if he needs to go to the loo (too late now) and the great leviathan procession—500 or so strong—moves off.
In front are the various papal military guards. Most prominent, in the early 19th century cavalry gear, are the Noble Guard. they were founded in 1801, when Pope Pius VII still had a cavalry, but now they have grown rather tubby. Pope Paul VI was to sack the lot. Then there are the Palatine Guard. At the close of the second world war, there were 2000 of these, and they had provided useful work during the Nazi occupation of Rome. Paul VI was to sack them, too. And of course, there are the Swiss Guard, too familiar to us to need further description.
You will after the guards see various papal chamberlains in their renaissance costumes.
These are followed (1.28) by members of the major ancient (male) religious orders. First come the mendicants, then the monks, and then the canons regular. No order is represented that was founded after the fifteenth century, for in the sixteenth St Ignatius asked that his Jesuits be let off, as the ceremony took too much of their precious time.  No other order thereafter was admitted. The Roman clergy now follow, carrying the crosses and umbrellas of the basilicas. After them two Swiss guard walk not with halberds, but with canes with little ribbons. This is where our film begins. This starts the procession of the papal household. The papal crossbearer goes first, with lay chamberlains of honour behind, chamberlains of spada e cappa (sword and cape), dressed in black Spanish court dress of the 16th century. The pope's preacher (a Capuchin) and confessor (a Servite) follow, and the other clergy of the household, including consistorial advocates. Judges follow, of the Rota and Signatura, with the Master of the Sacred Palaces (a Dominican) walking alone behind them. He looks after the Index and was the Censor of the Papal States.
Behind these are carried (at about 1.42) the precious mitre and the tiara for the coronation later on.
At 1.58 or so, the front of the procession enters the great narthex of the basilica, with the great equestrian statue of Constantine behind. At 2.13 you can see the throne prepared, and several clerics waiting nervously. Then we return to the stairs where the clergy are now pouring down. First come the vestments for the Papal Mass—we don't see this bit, I'm afraid—, then the thurible and seven acolytes with the Apostolic Subdeacon. Then come the penitentiaries of St Peter's wearing a chasuble over their cassock and carrying their symbol, a staff. Then come the abbots, the Commendatore of the Santo Spirito Hospital (who oversees all hospital chaplaincies). Now come the bishops, accompanied by their priest secretaries. Then the cardinals in their cappae magnae—clearly the camera has trouble with the brilliance of the colour—accompanied by both a secretary and a train-bearer. The macebearers and the Noble Guard come next, until at about 4.06, you can just see the Sedia Gestatoria at the head of the stairs beginning to appear. This is the Papal portable throne, and you will see the new Pope nervously descending, surrounded by at least fifty attendants. In front of him walk the heads of the Colonna and Orsini families and, together, and set apart, the Cardinals who will assist as Deacon and Subdeacon at the throne.
There is a bit of a pause at 5.00 (for the bearers to change hands?—'whoops, nearly lost you there, ha ha ha') and you can see the Cardinal Assistants at the Throne, Cardinals Canali (on our left) and the famous Ottaviani (on the right) pausing to look back and say 'come on, we're late!'.

Blessed Pope John was famously uncomfortable in the sedia gestatoria. When first lifted up, he was asked if he was all right. 'Hm: it's windy up here!' was the reply. And reportedly he invariably felt sea-sick after any time spent travelling in it. This was not the case with Pope Pius XII who would on occasion leap athletically around, leaning out to shake hands with people (presumably to the consternation of the bearers). Pope John just sat very, very, very still, managing an occasional watery smile and a feeble blessing and regretting having had that extra cornetto for breakfast. That being said, it was not he who abolished the sedia.


The coronation of Blessed Pope John XXIII took place fifty years ago today, on November 4th 1958, the feast of St Charles Borromeo. It seems a good opportunity to post, together with comments, in one place the videos which were placed on on You Tube about 18 months ago. These had originally appeared on my main blog, Valle Adurni, but various vicissitudes had led to their removal. Today seems a good day to put them back again, though this time I am starting a new blog to do it, which seems more sensible, since I'm sure nobody wants to wade through pages of my nonsense to find this more interesting stuff.
These videos were painstakingly gathered from a VHS video obtained by a friend from some obscure Italian noble who had advertised them. Clearly they are a recording of the RAI (Italian television network) production and so, in the standard of that day, the production is not terribly good.
Before anyone asks me—and plenty have—I'm afraid I am not prepared to go into production and post copies of this all over the world. It is mostly a question of time: though I have rendered the Video onto two DVDs, I can only copy one at a time, and I am far too busy to be able to sit over this. I am likewise not prepared to let my own copy out of my hands! My original copy of the video was lent to somebody. Not returned. Three video copies of that, likewise. And this YouTube version is made from my last remaining video, a truncated copy of my copy of my friend's copy of the Italian nob's copy of the Rai original. Which accounts for the fact that the quality is even less good than it might have been.

That all being said, what remains is an extraordinary treasure. This ceremony has now been entirely abandoned, and who knows if it will ever be revived. If there is to be a revival, it is highly unlikely that it will take place in the renaissance splendour shown on that day in 1958. Although Bd Pope John's successor, Paul VI, was crowned, this took place in a changed way which shows that from the word go, there was a lot of liturgical tinkering to be expected in that pontificate. Bd John's coronation, then, was the last to take place in its unchanged form—the commentator at one point observes that the rite was essentially unchanged for a millennium.