This Easter my wife and I travelled to Rome. What follows is a simple journal that records some of the things that we did, with a selection of photographs from each day.
After sunset on Good Friday, we attend the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) at the Roman Colosseum, which comprises prayers from fifteen families who have encountered suffering and loss in profound ways. We see Pope Francis seated above the procession, and at the end of the traditional fourteen stations he bestows an Apostolic Blessing on the gathering. An incredibly moving experience.
Today is Holy Saturday (and it also happens to be the 95th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI). Jenn and I rise early and walk from the Roman Forum towards Vatican City. We drink coffee on the Via Germanico, and then visit the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. A sublime experience.
After some pizza and a cold drink, we head back into the sunshine.
We rise early and walk towards the Vatican. The streets are quiet, and the air is cooler than yesterday. As we approach St Peter’s Square, we find that there are still seats available for the Easter celebration of the Mass: we pass through two rounds of security, and find seats near the centre with a clear view of the altar.
The Mass begins with a full Rosary (the Glorious Mysteries), and there is complete silence from the crowd for a period before the procession begins. Pope Francis is the main celebrant, but there are many other people and cultures who play an intrinsic part, particularly during the Readings and Intercessions. Some of the key elements of the Mass, such as the Creed and the Gloria, are sung beautifully by a choir.
Towards the end of the Mass, to our great surprise, we receive the Eucharist alongside people from all over the world: it was a humbling and beautiful experience, and without a doubt the pinnacle of the trip.
We remain at St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s quick zip around in his PopeMobile, which adds a touch of the carnivalesque, and then the Urbi et Orbi blessing. When we leave the Vatican shortly after noon, we are astounded by the crowds that have gathered since we first arrived.
We spend the rest of the day drinking caffé lattes and ducking into churches and basilicas that we spot along the way. We enjoy pizza and an American brunch at a delicious vegetarian restaurant. And then we head back to the apartment to cool down and relax.
We take a slower pace, and stroll to a quiet museum café that overlooks the city. A little later, we visit several key sites.
Firstly, we walk to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, which serves as the seat of the bishop of Rome, the Pope: it is believed to be the resting place of the skulls of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul, and to contain a relic of original wooden altar used by St Peter. We witness several infant children being baptised at an adjacent chapel.
Secondly, we visit the Scala Santa, a set of 28 marble steps that, according to Roman Catholic tradition, were taken from the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem; these are said to be the same steps on which Jesus of Nazareth walked on his way to his trial and crucifixion; today the marble is mostly protected by a wooden outer casing, but there are spaces on each step where the original marble can be touched. Thirdly, we visit the Basilica of St Clement, and explore the ancient temples, homes, and street spaces on its subterranean levels. After this, we refresh ourselves with a cold drink, fried artichokes, and more pizza.
Finally, we walk to the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, the traditional site where it is believed the Apostle is buried: visitors can see part of the sarcophagus said to include his remains, and a chain that is said to have bound him to a Roman soldier. There is a Mass being celebrated in one of the chapels of the Basilica. We spend some time looking at the edge of the sarcophagus, and reflecting on our trip. On our walk back, as the sun begins to sink, we enjoy lemon and mango gelato.
This has been an absolutely remarkable Easter. I can sincerely say that I will never think of the gospel accounts or the letters of Paul in quite the same way again. I also have a much deeper and richer appreciation for the history, art, culture, and significance of Christianity in the ancient world. The only thing that’s been missing so far is a chocolate egg, which will be a top priority when we return.
Tomorrow is our final day in Rome, and we are hoping to end our stay with a tour of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Pax Vobiscum. Peace be with you.
We had already tried knocking on the doors of St Peter’s Basilica on Holy Saturday, but a last-minute change delayed our visit. This morning we tried again, but we are turned away due to a youth event. We are told that the Basilica will reopen to the public at 1pm… which suggests that it will not be possible to explore the Basilica at all. Our bus to the airport is leaving at 2pm.
We head to a local café for a light breakfast and some coffee. We figure that if we perhaps take a taxi to the airport, we might still be able to visit the Basilica. But time will be tight. After a late morning wander, we join the queue to see what happens.
Third time lucky. While we didn’t spend as much time in St Peter’s as we would have liked, we had about an hour to look around and take in the atmosphere. I am particularly struck by Michelangelo’s Pietà: an affecting and arresting image. The soft, organic, and natural appearance of the hard marble gives it a particular power. Next, we visit the tomb of St John Paul II.
The entire Basilica is composed around a central focal point: the Altar of the Confession that stands under the dome. Below the altar is said to be the final resting place of St Peter the Apostle, the first Bishop of Rome. We spend time reflecting on the artworks, the sculpture, and this mighty Altar in the middle of it all. We also end our visit by walking through the underground papal tombs where St Peter is said to be buried. Sublime.
Visiting St Peter’s Basilica on our final day seems an appropriate way to end our trip. Today’s Office of Readings (in the Liturgy of the Hours) includes an excerpt from the first letter of Peter, and includes a Responsory discussing how proximity to faith and sacrificial love can help one to form “living stones” for the creation of “a spiritual house”. Inspired by this time among ancient stones, people, and histories, we head out and up into the Easter light.