Until today, I had been to Mass exactly one time in Rome. That’s just totally unacceptable. There are hundreds of churches in Rome, thousands of Masses said daily. I feel bad enough not going to church at Notre Dame when the chapel is just down two flights of stairs. Here, I’ve been skipping Mass at centuries old churches full of priceless art. Catholic guilt at its finest.
The Mass that I went to on my first weekend here was a Sunday night service. It was dark and cold inside Santa Maria della Scala, but an arch of chandeliers illuminated the altar. The priest sped through Mass in 28 minutes – no singing, no music, no nothing. The Mass was in Italian, and I was pleased to find that I understood most of it. At Santa Maria della Scala, Mass was snappy but rather forgettable.
This morning, I went to Mass by myself at a different church. I arrived a respectful 15 minutes early for a 10:30 a.m. Mass, and I was the first person in the church. An altar boy walked up and down the pews, laying out music sheets. I sat down in a row about midway up the nave and scooted to the far side, hoping to avoid having to make the call for when to go up for Communion.
As I sat thumbing through the missalette, I watched the congregation trickle in. A boy who looked about nine or ten years old zigged and zagged around the pews and the old ladies standing near the front of the church – as the boy dashed through the open doors of the sacristy, his mother came walking brusquely behind him. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she was clearly apologizing to the priest for her son’s tardiness. The boy slipped on a cassock and squeezed between his mom and the priest to join the other altar boy in passing out programs.
I couldn’t help gaping at the ceiling as the church filled up. The frescoes, the dome, the chandeliers and the relics of St. Dorothy underneath the altar were overwhelming to me, but they seemed old hat to the parishoners who filed in. I didn’t want to look too touristy, so I focused on the adornments on the walls and near the altar instead.
Mass began as the priest and altar boys – five of them! – processed out of the sacristy. Jeans and sneakers peeked out from under the boys’ robes when they knelt before the altar. There’s something very comforting about the familiarity of going to church in a far away place. I like the thought of the very same Mass with the very same readings happening all over the world on Sundays, from Rome to Kolkata to Welsh Family Hall. Even though the service was entirely in Italian, I knew exactly what was supposed to be going on in English. I also realized that my Italian cognition is much better than I give myself credit for. I can understand spoken and written Italian decently, but speaking is more challenging. Luckily, I was able to listen to the priest and read along in my handy missalette from the altar boy.
Perché tu solo il Santo, tu solo il Signore
Tu solo l’Altissimo: Gesù Cristo
Con lo spirito santa nella Gloria di Dio Padre, amen.
I followed along successfully through the readings, making mental notes to look up a few words. (For the record, Siracide is “Sirach” and sapienza is “wisdom.”) When it came time for the homily, I was on my own. No cheat sheet for that. I got the general gist of it, but it was challenging to focus and concentrate on fifteen minutes of speedy Italian. More than once, I found myself distracted by the priest’s fervent gesticulations. It’s true – people here really do talk with their hands.
The altar boys got to join hands with the priest around the altar during the Our Father, which was sung Notre Dame-style. I was really excited when everyone started holding hands, since handholding has been discouraged at my church in North Carolina. At Notre Dame, handholding and hugging are very acceptable and essentially required practices.
The altar boys had all sorts of work to do. The oldest one, who was maybe thirteen, was in charge of the incense during the processional, the gospel reading, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the recessional. The smallest one was his assistant – the little guy couldn’t have been more than seven years old, but he was charged with carrying the plate full of incense stinky stuff. All five altar boys read the Prayers of the Faithful (Preghiera dei Fedeli), and when it was Sign of Peace time, all of the boys went up and down the aisles, shaking hands with everyone. After Communion, the altar boys passed out bulletins to the congregation while the priest read the announcements.
I was definitely the only non-Italian in the church this morning. Today’s hour-long Mass felt much more real than the quick Sunday evening mass I went to with a dozen Notre Dame kids on our first weekend in Rome. Santa Dorotea felt like a parish community with marriage preparation classes and catechism and a watchful nun supervising the altar boys.
When I got home, I looked up Santa Dorotea on Wikipedia. There isn’t an English entry for the church, but the Italian entry informed me that the space I visited this morning was constructed in 1475. The parish has a cute, if dated, website, too. Check out some photos here.