“My Day at the Vatican: The Highs” by One Day in Italy
I was SO excited to go to the Vatican. It’s been the religious center for millions of people (including my family) for almost two thousand years. Church doctrine is discussed and created within its walls, affecting Catholics worldwide. I had just come from Assisi, a place that I really connected to; I could feel the peace emanating off the stone in quiet mornings and delighted in the lively but humble spirit in the evenings after the daytrippers left. I think I was expecting a similarly moving experience – perhaps one even more profound – at the Vatican.
Boy, was I wrong.
It all started out OK. I had wanted to get the most out of my time there and for me that means knowing the history and anecdotes of a place, so before I left home I booked the official Vatican Museum Art & Culture Tour. It starts out going through the museum, leads into the Sistine Chapel and then through St. Peter’s Basilica. That would start at 11:45am, but I had also seen a 9am mass on the online schedule and decided to go. It’s not every day you get a chance to hear mass said in the "MotherChurch" (Do people call it that? It reminds me of "MotherShip", which is probably appropriate, so let’s go with it).
I walked everywhere in Rome – its really the best way to "feel" a city – so around 8:20am I left my B&B by Piazza Navona and started walking toward Ponte Vittorio. After you cross the bridge, the street (Via San Pio X) merges into Via della Conciliazione, a broad street with a tree-lined median (the only of its kind I remember in Rome). This is the road that leads directly into St. Peter’s Square.
I have to say, it looked a lot farther on the map. I was daydreaming, enjoying the cool morning and envisioning the ethereal spirits that would surely be tangible around such a holy place (ha) when the road suddenly split left or right. But… I thought this road led directly into St. Peter’s Square?? That’s when, feeling like quite a moron, I looked up and – boom! – there it was before me.
There was almost no one around. Literally, almost no one. A few cars were buzzing around to either side but the long, slow lines I had heard about were nowhere to be seen. Loving my luck – or heavenly intention? hmm – I walked up toward the Basilica before everyone who was hiding in the alleyways could jump out to jam the entrance right as I approached (because THAT would really be my luck!).
A group of people were standing around a baricade which made me question if I had actually gotten there *too* early. Could the doors not be open yet? Mass was in 20 minutes, and I could’ve sworn there were earlier masses on the schedule. So what were these people doing just standing by the barricade? Wait, are they taking pictures?
I know that anyone who wants to join the Swiss Guard in this day and age has to expect tourists to treat them like they’re a Caravaggio or – worse – one of those dressed up characters who hang around tourist attractions to take pictures for tips, but I can’t help but feel bad for them. I mean, they’re just dressed in colorful clothes, standing there doing their jobs. They’re not doing somersaults or selling t-shirts. I felt like yelling out "Nothing to look at here, people! Move along!". Maybe I’ll understand the fascination one day. For now, I’ll be content with taking polite notice of them as I walk by. And maybe smirking a little at their striped tights.
Easy peasy, I walked up to and through the metal detectors and into the Basilica.
Before even taking in the enormity of the church, the massive marble columns and impossibly high ceilings, I heard an enormous amount of flashes coming from my right, sounding like a flock of strange birds. There may not’ve been the kind of crowds that would be there later in the day, but there was already a group of photo-hungry tourists four or five deep in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Sculpted in 1498-1499 for a French cardinal’s funeral, the Pietà was moved here in the 1800’s. My mom had a porcelain replica, about a foot high, in our living room growing up. It was poignant then, for me, to see the original, even if it was behind a wall of fiberglass and over the heads of a hundred or so tourists. It’s much smaller than I always assumed it was; guide books say its over 5 feet tall but I’m wondering if that includes the pedestal… I would’ve guessed 3 feet – max!
9am mass was to be held in a chapel to the left of the entrance about halfway back in the church. Again, without looking around much (why would I when I was going to be guided through in just a couple of hours?), I walked over to the chapel and joined the parishoners awaiting the priest’s entrance. There were 35-40 people there for mass, all shapes & sizes (and ages & genders). It was a simple, daily affair with no pomp or circumstance. Well, as little as a Catholic mass ever has. And quick – by 9:30 I was putting away my rosary (since I can’t understand the mass, I just pray during the parts that aren’t interactive).
As I was doing so, an old, crippled man hobbled up to me on crutches. Simple brown pants, blue sweater, clean shoes and combed hair – he had obviously dressed with care for church, and he didn’t seem to be with anyone. He was stooped over and only came up to my shoulder, and when he began to talk I realized he had no teeth.
Words started coming out of his mouth and to this day I have no idea if he was speaking in Italian, English or some other language, but at times I swear I could understand him. He wasn’t threatening – he was smiling through his gums, and I felt like he was trying to give encouragement, to tell me of the importance of religion, to relate personal experience. I mean, who knows, but that’s what I thought I pieced together. He talked without stopping for several minutes during which I smiled, nodded and tried to appreciate the moment rather than feeling impatient (he was standing at the entrance to my pew so I couldn’t get out without asking him to move). As people walked by us a few of them glanced over and smiled, and finally the old man put his hand to his forehead as if to tip a hat in farewell and moved on to another young woman farther toward the back of the chapel.
After gathering my things I decided to explore the square and find the Vatican post office instead of looking around St. Peter’s – again, counting on that tour (can you feel the foreshadowing?).
People were starting to mill about the square but there still wasn’t the mob I had been warned about. Time for the awkward "to prove I was here" self portrait:
To find the Vatican post office I had to walk back toward the entrance of the Basilica. There was construction in the square – it seemed like they were repairing the facade of the ancillary buildings – so it was a little hard to spot. Finally overhearing someone ask a Swiss Guard for the location of the post office, I turned around so I was facing away from the Basilica and walked about fifty steps to the entrance to a building on my right.
Ecco! Inside the post office was bustling. There were attendant windows on the right, a small shop with postal items in the center and some additional windows on the far left that seemed to be temporarily closed. I had written out my postcards on the train from Assisi so got in line to buy stamps.
Three people later, I was at the window and presented my 14 pre-addressed cards. "34,30 euro please", the woman behind the counter – clearly bored to tears – told me.
34,30?!?! For 14 postcard stamps?! Seriously? I knew my family – particularly some aunts, my mom and my grandmother – would be excited to get a card postmarked from Vatican City, but I was suddenly rethinking the cards I had addressed to friends. I could feel the line building up behind me so just shelved over the euro and made a mental note to make sure every single person I sent a card to appreciated that postmark – all 2,45 euro worth of it.
When I walked back outside the line for the Basilica was starting to build, so even though I was early I decided to find the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This is where the day started to go wrong.
For every high, there’s a low. Stay tuned.