Here are some excerpts from a piece I wrote back in 2015, after my first trip to Rome. I’m in Italy again, and thinking about the saints, and that brought it to mind:
Rome was very moving. There was very much the sense of being in the heart of an ancient, sprawling empire. Brazil seemed quite evidently a distant outpost (albeit one which still maintains the old culture). I was amazed to encounter so many places and people I had read about. Here’s the place where Saint Paul is buried! Here is the head of John the Baptist! Here is the door to the first oratory of St. Philippe Neri! The stories that have become a part of my life came to life far more than I expected.
I traveled with a list of prayer requests, some quite specific (“pray for my oldest son at this particular Church” and that sort of thing). I adored the focus on prayer, and made a game of offering heartfelt prayers in front of every side altar in every Church, as much as time, tourists and my endurance would allow. Saints are so much fun!
Of all the many many churches I visited in Italy some were tourist attractions and some weren’t, mostly based on whether or not they contained artwork by famous artists like Bernini or Michelangelo. A few are simply popular for having important saints relics, like the basilica where Saint Rita’s body is kept in the village of Cassia. This impacts the religious use of the churches in one of two ways, mostly. One effect it can have is that the church infrastructure has been designed (or redesigned) to deal with thick crowds. At Cassia, for instance, you can’t really see Saint Rita, and there is no place to sit, kneel or even really stand near her body. The space (of recent design) has been set up to cope with a thick and constant flow of devout visitors, moving them along past a large window through which one can briefly see Saint Rita a few meters away. Some time spent in quiet prayer – or even just the intimacy of stopping, kneeling and having a chat – is not possible.
In contrast, Saint Catherine of Siena’s body, in Rome, is under an altar in a major church (if I recall correctly her head is elsewhere!). You can walk right up, kneel down, and spend all the time you like, assuming there is no Mass, wedding or other religious function going on. St. Paul’s tomb, likewise, has a few stairs down, some kneelers in front, a half dozen people coming and going (on a weekday morning), and is designed to allow you time and space for a private chat with the saint. The lesser known saints are often highly accessible, though in some cases they are in side chapels that are closed by decorative gratings, opened only on special occasions.
In any case, the other factor can simply be the activities of tourism and prayer themselves. The churches which attract large numbers of secular tourists usually have some specific chapels where photos are not permitted, reserved for prayer. Where that is not the case, there is little chance for intimacy or silence. It matters less if you are good at ignoring distractions. It makes some people crazy.
The quirky, unexpected disruptions that I encountered were a bit amusing. I went one Saturday morning to a church where I had gone before, recalling a particularly beautiful little side chapel to St. Philippe Neri that I wanted to pray in. I went into the church and saw there was a morning Mass in progress. The priest was in the middle of the homily. After making a brief reverence in the back pew I walked up along the side to the very front, where the chapel of St. Philippe Neri was. I was a bit surprised to see such a crowded Mass, though it was the weekend.
I settled into the cozy chapel, which is barely bigger than a typical large American bathroom. The homily went on and on. I barely understood it, in any case, so it was fairly easy to tune out. And then there was some shuffling and silence and I heard “I, Bruno, do take thee, Esther….” and realized it was a wedding. Doh. The bride and groom must have been obscured from view up front when I came in. How was I ever going to leave? I had blithely walked in in front of everyone, but going out I’d be facing the crowd. I decided to just finish my prayers in a leisurely way and play it by ear.
Fortunately after the vows there was a musical interlude and several people with fussy babies came and stood right outside the chapel where I was now hiding, so it was easy to casually slip out without being too obvious.
On another day, a weekday evening, I wandered past a church on a tiny side street, saw it was open, and slipped inside. It was small, and once inside I was immediately in the pews not far from the altar. There were two dozen men – part of some sort of devotional group – praying together. I felt like a bit of an intruder – there was an intimacy to the group and to the small space that didn’t invite random strangers to wander around. The body of a saint was displayed behind glass under the altar. I stayed briefly in back and then left, going back on another day when there wasn’t anyone there.
And later in the trip I got caught in yet another wedding, this one in the church of St. Cecilia. In an amusing twist my friend and I hid behind some pillars to watch the bride come in and saw two of the religious sisters who run the Church lurking off to the sides doing the same thing.