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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous Page 4

Basilica of Saint Peter (Part 4)

Divine Service in St. Peter's

Although the Lateran Basilica bears the title of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, mother and head of all the churches of the earth, this basilica, as Waal correctly observes, has for a thousand years been an isolated church which played a very modest part in the devotions of the Roman pilgrims. It is very different with Saint Peter's. The great wealth of the basilica has always made it possible to maintain most magnificent ritual; and its proximity to the inner city, its great size, and its art treasures have always attracted everyone. Besides numerous canons, beneficiaries, and chaplains, the church has at its disposal the Vatican Seminary, the students of which always assist in the church in the celebration of Divine Service. The performances of their vocal choirs, the Capella Giulia, are of a very high artistic order. One liturgical celebration takes place only in Saint Peter's and in no other church in the whole world: the Washing of the Altar on Maundy Thursday. At the close of the Matins on this day the so-called papal altar under the great bronze baldachino is sprinkled with oil and wine. In an extended procession the archpriest, his vicar, the canons, the beneficiaries, the chaplains, and the entire clergy approach in order, and symbolically wash the altar with a sprinkler. A solemn benediction with the great relics from the gallery of Saint Helena terminates this very impressive ceremony.

The great papal functions which Pope Leo XIII was the first to resume after the sad year of 1870 have since then taken place in Saint Peter's with a few exceptions, when the Sistine Chapel or the Sala Ducale were used. Jubilees, canonizations, coronations, and other events in which the pope solemnly presides assemble 40,000 to 50,000 people in the gigantic halls of Saint Peter's. They wait patiently for hours until at the appointed time the Vicar of Christ, loftily enthroned upon the sedia gestatoria, blesses the worshipping throng, while in measured steps he is born to the papal altar. A perfect silence prevails, when after long preparations the pope in full pontifical attire begins the actual service. Suddenly the magnificent tones of the Kyrie are intoned by the choir of the Sistine Chapel, who alone have the privilege of singing in the presence of the pope, and always without the accompaniment of an organ. Then the pope turns for the first time to the faithful and chants "Pax vobis" (Peace be with you). At the Elevation silver trumpets resound from Michelangelo's dome.

Chimes of St. Peter's

As in many cathedral churches, the bells of Saint Peter's possess an ample endowment of their own. This serves for their maintenance and to defray the cost of the complicated programme of the chimes. The usual daily service is simple but far more complicated are the chimes for Sundays, fast days, feast days, ember days, feasts with octaves, the anniversary of the death, election, and coronation of the present and the preceding pope, and finally, as a climax, the feast of Saint Peter with its chimes seven days before and during its octave. Different chimes are prescribed at the death of a canon than at that of the pope.

The Maintenance of the Basilica

A building of such colossal extent requires a corps of architects, who conduct the ordinary, as well as the unusual, works on the basilica. They are directed by a head architect, who in conjunction with the economist of Saint Peter's, a canon, discusses and arranges everything as far as no special question requires the vote of the chapter. A staff of selected artisans of all kinds, who are in permanent service and are called sampietrini, is directed by a head master, and there are few great institutions in the world which have such a chosen body of clever, reliable, and fearless workmen. Only in the rarest cases is the management of Saint Peter's compelled to seek assistance of artisans or workmen who do not belong to the sampietrini. The maintenance of the mighty building is exemplary throughout.

Transcribed by Judy Levandoski

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII
Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

See New Advent Catholic Website

See also Roman Basilica Processionals [CNP Catalog #3072]

 Back to Part 3: Description of the Basilica

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