Wowing the World-weary; a Celebrated Chair

A Pope Appears — and Jaws Drop

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 3, 2005 ( Rome has always inspired awe and wonder. From the Colosseum to St. Peter’s to, yes, even the Victor Emmanuel monument (disparagingly called «the wedding cake»), the city has always taught world-weary visitors how to gasp in amazement again.

John Paul II has certainly taken on this facet of the Eternal City in his quarter-century here. And he demonstrated it last Sunday at the Gemelli Polyclinic.

When the Pope was re-hospitalized last week during dreary, dark, drizzling days, the city took on a pessimistic mien. Next day came news of the Holy Father’s operation, and the sense of foreboding grew along with the number of satellite trucks and cameras parked outside the hospital watching and waiting.

Reporters, producers and news personalities started arriving one after the other, some manifestly disgruntled to have been pulled away from the glittering red carpets of the Oscars to the damp muddy knoll outside the Gemelli.

Ominous weather and bleak predictions were the backdrop for Sunday morning’s broadcasts. As the television presenters schooled their features into a properly concerned expression and prepared to somberly announce that the Pope would miss the Angelus for the first time in 26 years, sunlight reappeared for the first time in days.

And with the sun came the Pope. Weak, hand at his throat, he appeared at his window and blessed all those gathered below.

The visible shock of the assembled journalists was worth a thousand words. Seasoned journalists, world-weary and jaded, suddenly found themselves slack-jawed in utter amazement.

One television producer, unable to conceal her admiration, shook her head and exclaimed aloud, «This guy’s a [expletive] superhero! Mike Tyson, eat your heart out!»

John Paul II wins by knockout.

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«Rock» Festival

The fashions of winter awards ceremonies found a worthy counterpart at St. Peter’s Basilica this week. Bright lights and magnificent fashions adorned the basilica for the liturgical feast of Peter’s Chair, on Feb. 22.

No catwalk or red carpet here, but the imposing marble nave of St. Peter’s. Instead of paparazzi flashbulbs, the apse was lit with hundreds of candles arrayed around the bronze monument of the Cathedra of St. Peter designed in 1660 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

For this feast, St. Peter too dons festive garb. The ancient bronze statue of the prince of the apostles is well known to pilgrims who have caressed and kissed his feet over the centuries, wearing the toes to a smooth, nondescript mass.

But for his feast day the regal figure of the fisherman is cloaked in a heavy red robe. This mantle is fastened with a large gilt pin in the form of a dove. A large jeweled tiara is placed on his head and the parts of the statue left visible besides the head are the arm raised in blessing, the hand holding the keys and the worn little foot peeking out from under the hem of the robe.

The feast of St. Peter’s Chair celebrates the day that St. Peter took up his mission as Bishop and held his first liturgical service at Antioch where he remained for seven years before moving on to Rome, where he served for 25 years until his martyrdom under Emperor Nero.

The feast of his Chair at Antioch falls on Feb. 22, while the feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Rome used to fall on Jan. 18. They were both Roman feasts and celebrated grandly in the city, the first by the catacombs of Priscilla where tradition said, «St. Peter first sat, where Peter baptized,» and the second in the Vatican basilica.

The Vatican ceremony in the splendid church built by Emperor Constantine involved two thrones. The first was a marble seat from which the pope celebrated the pontifical Mass surrounded by the Roman clergy. The second was a movable chair, made of wood, which was brought out only on Feb. 22. The pope sat in this throne as newly baptized Christians would file in from the baptistery to be confirmed by him.

The latter celebration was far more magnificent as well as closer to the city and as the years passed the first feast gravitated toward and was absorbed into the Feb 22 date. This was further enhanced by the belief that on this day Peter has been designated by Christ as the «rock» upon which Our Lord would «build my church.»

The ancient wooden throne, patched and inlaid with ivory, was brought out for centuries for the feast, and until the papacy took up residence in Avignon, it was also brought out for the papal coronation.

Believed to have been originally in the Church of St. Prisca, the throne was transferred to the baptismal chapel of St. Peter’s in the late fourth century by Pope Damasus.

Today it is incorporated into the immense bronze Bernini monument «Cathedra Petri,» soaring above the altar. When the light of the afternoon sun comes streaming through the alabaster-paned window, the throne is bathed in a golden glow symbolizing divine light illuminating the authority of St. Peter.

Visitors to the basilica can see an exact copy of the chair as well as the miter used on the statue of St. Peter in the Treasury Museum of the church.

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Extolling the Eucharist

The Year of the Eucharist has wrought many beautiful changes in the cityscape.

Dozens of churches that were formerly always closed, now open their doors in the late afternoon to entice passers-by to adoration. Not since St. Philip Neri and the institution of the Forty Hours Devotion in Rome (the continuous prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament) and the contemporaneous encouragement of adoration by St. Ignatius Loyola, has there been such a widespread invitation to bring people back to adoration.

Churches have responded by opening doors and polishing monstrances, as well as presenting themselves as references points toward understanding the Eucharist and entering into its mystery.

The Basilica of St. Mary Major took the lead in these initiatives this Lenten season by offering five weekly appointments to contemplate the Eucharist.

Every Thursday of Lent the basilica is hosting «Reflection and Music,» a beautiful combination of a meditation on the Eucharist and hymns and chants performed by Italian and American choirs.

The speakers are exceptional. Cardinals Bernard Law, Walter Kaspar, Francis Arinze, Giovanni Battista Re and José Saraiva Martins all have taken excepts from John Paul II’s encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» and prepared meditations on the themes of the Eucharist and its role in repentance, sacrifice, the Church, eternal life and transformation.

Last week, after a moving performance of Pierluigi da Palestrina’s «Iesu Rex Admirabilis,» Cardinal Kaspar spoke about the Eucharist as a visible and tangible encounter with Christ and its transforming effects on the person. Standing before the relic of the manger in which Jesus was first laid, the reminder of the epiphany of the incarnation, Cardinal Kaspar emphasized that «the face of Christ is still visible in the Eucharist.»

At the end of the talk, the choir sang again, filling the sumptuous nave of the basilica with sound. Through music, and its transcendental quality, the assembled faithful are better able contemplate the mystery of the Eucharist. The evenings balance the reason of words with the emotional effect of music.

The selection of music encompasses the history of the Church’s expression though music. There are several Gregorian chants, indicative of earliest use of music in liturgy, then works by Palestrina, choirmaster of St. Mary Major from 1561 to 1571. The pieces written by Palestrina were composed at the same moment that Eucharistic adoration was being promoted so energetically in Rome and, indeed, the great artist knew and was influenced by St. Philip Neri.

The rest of the pie
ces are modern, written for the most part by Monsignor Valentino Miserachs Grau, present-day choirmaster at St. Mary Major. This happy blending of past and present serves to underscore the centrality of the Eucharist for the Church, in all ages.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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