Saturday, March 23, 2013

Roman Catholic Church Etiquette

Jesus covered for Lent
I first visited Rome thirty years ago, and as I wandered through the medieval streets, marveled at the facades, floors, door handles, was charmed by the Romans, brushed past young priests and was stopped by tourists for directions, I was reassured to see that not much has changed in thirty years. I was heartened by the degree to which the Romans have held onto their culture, their personality, their city as the world has changed around them.

The Floor of the Pantheon in the rain
And as was the case thirty years ago, I was astounded by the degree to which the Catholic Church defined my experience of Rome. Of course, my visit coincided with Francesco’s induction, so perhaps there was more Catholic pomp and circumstance than usual. And I have to admit that, in the moment, I was swept up by all the excitement: as I did my morning run along the Tiber on Tuesday, listening to the sounds of the Vatican choir interspersed with Francesco’s address to the world, I looked left up via della Conciliazione, and there he was up the end of the street. I almost wished I was Catholic. I also loved the familiar sight of black robed priests young and old, rushing, walking, riding mopeds and bicycles through the streets, defining the world around them.  
The floor of  Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva
 the sun shines through a stained glass window
The charm of the air pervaded by Catholicism and my enthusiasm for its rituals and cultural assets would, I am sure, wear off if I were to be anything more than a tourist in Rome. But because I have no intention of moving to Rome, I put all my prejudices and opinions aside about what must be the most oppressive institution in the world, and soaked up its riches for a few days. Along the way, I became fascinated by “church etiquette.” It started when I got very unwelcome looks from the young priests in particular. I am in Italy to look at specific frescoes, none of which are of any interest to the average tourist. And so, often the lights in the chapels with the frescoes in question were only turned on for services. So I sat with the faithful few and sometimes in a congregation of one taking notes on the frescoes while the young priests were busy at the altar. More than once I felt the eyes of judgmental surveyance directed at me. But I figured that they could never say anything to me because that would necessarily mean they were not concentrating on their prayers. Much to their chagrin, I kept writing.
The Hole

And then in the basilicas and churches where I joined the tourists, it was a different kind of tension between the Church and the mignons. In the oldest of old, the Pantheon, a shaft of daylight penetrates the wondrous vaulted ceiling and illuminates the world below. This architectural wonder is heaving with tourists, and so I took a seat out of the rain (because the hole in the ceiling opens the basilica to all elements, not just sunlight. My sense of the crowd was that they were very well behaved. As people do, they chatted among themselves, read their guidebooks out loud and asked me to take their photographs (somehow I became the official Pantheon photographer for all Italian tourists who needed to record their moment together with Jesus at the altar). And then, as if negating the beauty and wonder of the shaft of light, a voice over the loudspeaker announced in five different languages, that is, five repetitions, “Please respect the silence in this Basilica”. I wondered why it had obviously not occurred to them that the loudest, most disrespectful noise was the booming voice telling everyone to keep quiet. There was no opportunity for quiet contemplation as the announcement was loud and long.

Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio
As I entered Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, on the same piazza as the Trevi fountain — read: church was all but empty — I was surprised not to see the requisite young priest protecting the sacred spaces. That was, until I sat down and rested my tired feet on the kneeler. All of a sudden he appeared, or more likely, bolted through a hatch in a door that must have extended 20 feet up the left transept. He reprimanded me through the familiar Italian mixture of gestures and words, turned around and raced back through the hatch. A group of elderly women appeared and were gathered around one of the chapels at the back, obediently listening to their guide. Lo and behold, out he came again. The young priest stood right in the middle of the ladies and dealt them a warning not to go inside the chapel, even though they were quietly standing at least two feet from the altar rail, listening to their guide. He must have been safely back behind the door for no more than two or three minutes when an American with a camera came and sat near me. I wanted to tell him not to take photographs as there would be consequences, but this seemed a little too like self surveillance. There must have been either a spy hole in the hatch of the 20 foot door, or a surveillance camera. I couldn’t see a camera anywhere – so I imagined the young priest sitting behind the door, eagerly awaiting the next infringement of his domain.

Michelangelo, Il CristoBasilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva
In the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a major church in the Roman Catholic order, an old priest sat next to a makeshift table selling books on Michelangelo, reading his iphone. He showed complete disinterest in any of the goings on in the Basilica. I watched a group of tourists from India stroke the legs of Michelangelo’s Il Cristo. The smooth erotic surface of the perfect form is of course, just waiting to be stroked, so why not. A group of young Italian school children were being led around, given a talk on each of the Basilica’s attractions. While they were relatively well behaved, by the time they reached the Carafa chapel with Filippino Lippi’s frescoes, they couldn’t contain themselves. One chased another around the altar space and the others followed, and the let out muffled shrieks. The priest did not look up from his iphone.

The floor just outside the Basilica San Pietro
And in the holiest of holy, the Basilica San Pietro, anything goes. There was no attempt to curtail photographs, noise or school children’s scuffles. I wondered if the mise-en-abîme of chapels, and the sheer size of the place, either makes it impossible to police, or more likely, absorbs the sound? Similarly, perhaps the Catholic church reasons that if the sculptures have lasted this long without being damaged by the caresses of the 25,000 tourists that move through there in a day, then there’s no need to prohibit access. That said, Church logic isn’t that easily distilled: Michelangelo’s Pietà is now behind an elaborate glass structure and railing — of the genre that keeps visitors going anywhere near the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. So while school children can chase each other around the altar adorned with Lippi frescoes and a Bellini sculpture can prop up weary tourists, there’s no going near a Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria del Popolo, to give an other example. In the end, like most rules and regulations of the Roman Catholic Church, I imagine there’s no sustainable argument to support the surveyance of tourists in its most hallowed spaces.


Rob White said...

I recently returned to Rome for the first time since my first trip, also 30 years ago. I included a tour through the Vatican that astounded initially by the huge numbers of visitors and then, by the treasure trove of art. As we approached the Sistine Chapel, our tour guide regularly warned us to respect this upcoming space with Silence. The closer we got, the more we heard this. As we squeezed through the narrow hallway into the chapel we were met with a wall of sound as people loudly called out features, searched for lost ones, chatted furtively and gave live updates to loved ones on their phones.
This audio anarchy made me laugh out loud. And I enjoyed it.

Frances Guerin said...

I love that expression, "acoustic anarchy". Thanks Rob!