On Sunday we took a taxi to the Pantheon in the morning, having lost our fear of taking taxis some days ago. (Being a pedestrian faced with an oncoming taxi is another matter entirely.) For a building with such an important reputation, we were surprised.
It’s a massive building with huge columns squeezed into a small space. There’s no open area around it, or at least one commensurate with the building’s importance, and it’s difficult to see the dome with any perspective.
Beautiful marble interior and engineering aside, there’s not a lot to see: a few paintings and statues of martyrs. But I noticed that Mass would be said in 40 minutes and decided to attend while the girls shopped.
On this trip, one day blended into the next and I had yet to attend Mass in this highly Catholic country. The closest I got was in Riomaggiore, after asking several people when Mass was. No one knew! Almost all Italians are baptized but few practice. Finally a young boy told me 9 am. I was at the local church on Sunday at 9, but no Mass. An old gent outside said it had already taken place.
So this seemed like the perfect chance and place to go. Ten minutes before the service, the attendants cleared the building, except for those attending Mass.
I was sitting in the first row, curious about how much of the Italian service I would understand. An Italian Lector came up to me with a Missile. Would I be willing to read the Second Reading that is said in English? Wow! Yes! She gave me the missile and I had a few minutes to prepare.
Then the organist began playing. The music of my youth filled the acoustically perfect space, reverberating back to us from the huge dome. Sacred music always gives me a lump in the throat.
Now the Monsignor came out in his hat with the puffball on top, attended by one server, who was also the cantor, and led the attendees in song. The Monsignor look remarkably like my dad – a bit portly, hooked nose, ruddy complexion, slack jowls. I could not stop looking at him.
I needn’t have worried about understanding the Mass. The Italian was close enough to Latin that I could feel my way through the service. And most of the music was sung in Latin. I was back in the church of my youngest memories. Even the Monsignor’s sermon, while said in Italian, was accompanied by such powerfully evocative emotions on his face and gesturing hands, that his meaning came through. His eyes raised to heaven, voice filling the space, he never once looked at his notes.
And even though this was the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Times, the server got out the incense burner not once, but twice, to fill the space with thick smoke and scents we normally enjoy only a couple of times a year in the US.
The rich visuals of the old ceremony, the incense, the soaring music, the chance to hear my own voice fill the Pantheon during my reading, the strong reminder of my dad, all of it finally brought me to tears after communion.
After the service, a number of English speakers came up to me to comment on my reading. One said I was very powerful in my delivery. For me, this 15th Sunday in Ordinary Times was no ordinary Sunday. And then the icing on the cake – I remembered it was my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 94. Happy Birthday Dad!
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Other essays on the Trip to Italy:
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