Benedict XVI and his last Epiphany Mass

Taking to heart the maxim ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia, I have become a frequent visitor to Rome.  Because of certain occupational engagements, a temporary cessation on my usual pilgrimages is in effect, through when released from such duty, Deo auxiliante, I shall resolutely return to the threshold of the Apostles in thanksgiving for a safe return.

As a rule, I refuse to take photos in the holy places.  Much is my consternation when crowds of tourists, some through invincible ignorance, others through a misguided desire to document every detail of every tour, spend an incredibly high proportion of their respective visits behind the lens of a camera.  Amidst the sound and fury of visitors clamoring for shots of themselves, their families, and their friends in every museum and basilica in Rome, it is easy to miss the foundational truth and purpose of magnificent places like San Pietro and San Paolo fuori le mura.

I refer to the foundational truth that these are cemeteries.  The focal points of the great basilicas are the τρόπαια τῶν ἀποστόλων, the “trophies of the Apostles”, the martial monuments which commemorate their participation in the victory of Christ who, by a humiliating execution, won for mankind the salvation which comes from God.  The Apostles, witnessing to their Lord usque ad mortem et sanguinis effusionem, have given their bones to this piece of earth so that those who journey to this place might remember their deaths, and in so doing, recall the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, as a rule, I refuse to take photos in the holy places.  It always seemed to me a stunning lack of decorum to mindlessly snap photos as if a basilica were merely a museum and not a true campo santo, a place adorned with the bodies of God’s departed elect.  Instead, I prefer the unmediated contemplation of sacred art.  Not through the constricted frame of a camera nor through the grainy resolution of an iPad photo, but through the organs of my senses am I stirred and moved to marvel at the work of men built for the glory of God.  I would rather share in the experience of generations of saints who came here before, and who, without the encumbrances of modern technology, beheld in paralyzed stupefaction the radiance of the greatest shrines in the world.

This is in fact the idea of the Epiphany: God has shown his glory through visible signs, and thus magi from the East have come to adore him.  They came not to take the young prophesized King in order to make him a ruler after themselves.  Unlike so many mindless tourists and pilgrims today, the magi came not that they might somehow take hold of this moment, to “grasp” the presence of God, to freeze it in time, and to make it their possession.  Instead, they prostrated themselves before the poor infant in the manger and, opening their hearts and their treasures, did him homage, contemplating the strange yet wonderful sight before them.  It reminds one of a refrain so often repeated by Popes Francis and Benedict XVI: lasciarsi colpire dalla grazia di Dio… let oneself be struck by God’s grace, by the beauty of creation, by the wonder of sacred art, and in this way lift the heart and mind to the contemplation of God himself.

Almost exactly one year ago, 6 January 2013, I sat along the central aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica for the Mass of the Epiphany celebrated by Benedict XVI.  To the solemnity of this feast was added the joyous consecration of four priests as bishops (all titular archbishops, in fact): Fortunatus Nwachukwu (Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua), Vincenzo Zani (Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education), Nicholas Thevenin (Apostolic Nuncio to Guatemala), and Georg Gaenswein (Prefect of the Pontifical Houseold).  Having st

aked out a spot along the aisle, I had a clear and unobstructed view of most of the sacred rites, easy access to distribution of the Holy Eucharist, and a front row vantage from which to see the procession of the Pope and of the new archbishops as they gave their first blessings to the people.

As Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Ceremonies, walked back up the aisle from the high altar after a brief rehearsal with the various sacred ministers, I called out to him and motioned for him to come over. Monsignor Marini! Monsignor Marini!

Surely confused that some random person would call to him, I shook his hand, first thanking him for everything he had done for the cause of the sacred liturgy.  He was very appreciative and seemed to be more at ease.  But then I asked him the real question on my mind.

Quando celebrerà il Santo Padre una messa antica?  When will the Holy Father celebrate the older Mass?  Marini’s response was quick and diplomatic, but his face seemed to gesture that he too wondered the same thing.

Non lo so.  Dipende da lui!  I smiled and thanked him again, and thus ended my brief encounter with the Master of Pontifical Ceremonies.

I sat next to a group of older (50s-60s?) pilgrims from Milan (Inter fans unfortunately).  My place was immediately next to a Milanese woman of loquacious though pleasant disposition who, though surely a frequent visitor to the greatest Gothic cathedral in Italy (the Duomo in Milan) and resident of a city with no shortage of architectural marvels, still comments with wonder at St. Peter’s magnificence.  Guarda il baldacchino di Bernini–che roba!  And as the brass section prepared to signal the beginning of the procession from a balcony above the main door of the basilica, she nudges me, and with quickening anticipation remarks: scattono le trombe! Ecco, scattono le trombe!  And thus the sacred ministers processed, first the processional cross with various acolytes; next came the deacons, dressed magnificently in white Roman dalmatics with sparkling gold trim; then came various cerimonieri pontifici dressed in choro (among them a certain Konrad Krajewski, now the Papal Almoner and a bishop himself).  Then came the co-consecrating bishops: Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, erstwhile Secretary of State, and Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.  I rejoiced to see them wearing splendid Roman chasubles over equally splendid dalmatics and tunicles!

Then followed the Holy Father Benedict XVI.  Infirm with the burdens of his office, he was pushed down the aisle on the moving platform once used by John Paul II towards the end of his life.  The Milanese woman next to me exclaimed with shock: quanto s’è invecchiato!  The same feeling hit me.  At such a close distance, I saw the paleness and fragility of his complexion, the dullness of his left eye which surely signaled blindness, and the shakiness of his arm as he imparted the blessing.  But the weakness of his flesh stood in stark contrast to the willingness of his spirit.  He smiled the whole way down the aisle, illuminated with the joy of the Christmas season, and ready to undertake the long, arduous rite of episcopal consecration.

And what a sight he was!  I saw the Roman Pontiff dressed as the pontiffs of old: tunicle, dalmatic, and chasuble, all in the Roman style, white as the snows of Christmas and gold like the gifts of the Magi.  Above this was the long-neglected fanon, that silver and gold humeral veil proper only to the Pope!  And of course, the pallium of white wool adorned with six red crosses and the mitre completed the pontifical vestments.  Seeing Pope Benedict enter in such fashion as Palestrina’s triumphant setting of Tu es Petrus rang through the basilica, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit teary-eyed.

On that day I saw the modern Roman Rite in all its potential glory made manifest.  From the vestments, to the polyphony, the sonorous Latin prayers, the great participation of the people in Latin hymns and ordinary prayers, this indeed was the liturgical climax of Benedict’s pontificate.  Here was the liturgical vision of the Second Vatican Council fulfilled.  This is the standard for Holy Mass!

The homily was a characteristically Ratzingerian lesson, marked with echoes of Augustine, rich with scriptural motifs, and even containing a reference to the Dies Irae!  As he admonished his new bishops to be strong and courageous against the corrupting popular tendencies of modernity, he reminded them that courage does not mean recourse to violence.  In fact, using words that worshipers of pop culture might mistake for Pope Francis’s, he told the newly consecrated:

…tale valore o fortezza non consiste nel colpire con violenza, nell’aggressività, ma nel lasciarsi colpire e nel tenere testa ai criteri delle opinioni dominanti. Il coraggio di restare fermamente con la verità è inevitabilmente richiesto a coloro che il Signore manda come agnelli in mezzo ai lupi.

“…such valor or strength does not consist in striking with violence, in aggressiveness, but in letting oneself be struck and by holding fast in the face of the standards of dominant opinions.  The courage to remain firmly with the truth is required inevitably of those whom the Lord sends as sheep among the wolves.”

What an honor it was to be present on this day.  I recall Archbishop Gaenswein as his lifelong mentor laid hands on his head and, by sending the Holy Spirit, empowered him with the fullness of Christ’s priesthood as tears ran down the young Archbishop’s face.  Very soon these tears would become more bitter, but for now, his joy and the joy of all the new Archbishops, spread like a fire from the hands of the Pope to every last member of the congregation.  Victoria’s setting of Te Deum Laudamus echoed in all its stately majesty as the four new pontifices, adorned with mitre and crozier for the first time, processed down the aisle, led by the Cardinal co-consecrators, to give their first blessing to the people.  As they passed my spot along the edge of the aisle, a cry of ad multos annos! escaped my usually hushed lips, and I cannot help but think that Archbishop Zani heard me, for he faced my direction, smiled, nodded, and imparted the benediction.  At the end of Mass, Alma Redemptoris Mater was sung by all, and the final recession proceeded in order.

As the Holy Father approached for the last time–I don’t know why– some unexplained impulse drove me to break my own rule.  I turned on my phone, and as soon as I could access the camera application, I quickly snapped a photo in the direction of the Holy Father.  I didn’t have time to properly aim or focus, and I didn’t even look at my phone while taking the picture (shooting from the hip, so to speak), because it seemed as if the Holy Father had found my gaze and gave me his blessing.  Perhaps it was a bright flash of a camera, or the sun entering from the window, but at the moment he gave the blessing in my direction, his head and his face shone brightly and he smiled.

lux caelis splendebat super caput eius

Why did I break my own rule?  To this day I cannot explain my thought process as to why I took that photo.  I had seen this Pope many times over many audiences and Masses (though none as close as this).  Perhaps the outward splendor and solemnity of this particular Mass had something to do with it, or perhaps the force of the Pope’s preaching, or perhaps some other reason hitherto inscrutable to me.  Neither I nor could anybody else have guessed that, in just a few short weeks, this shy, humble, Bavarian theologian-turned-Pope would issue a decree to shock the Catholic world, and that this Mass would be one of his last public Eucharistic celebrations.

There is an adage that says “rules are made to be broken”.  I would qualify, by adding, “not habitually, sed pro re gravi“.  In the case of governments, even Thomas Jefferson remarks in the Declaraiton of Independence that “light and transient causes” do not justify revolution, but only an urgent “necessity which constrains” men toward change.  Karol Wojtyla broke the “rule” of an Italian papacy; Ratzinger broke the “rule” that the Bishop of Rome should die sul soglio di Pietro; and of course, Papa Bergoglio continues to defy convention (not habitually, but judiciously, in most cases).  In the face of these historic precedents, my little rule of not taking photos in holy places seems petty, and so in this unique instance, I’m glad I broke it.

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