I arose early on Sunday and set out to St. Peter's by myself to arrive there when the church opened to the public at 7:00 A.M.. This was to become my daily ritual while I was in Rome and led to a number of unique experiences. Saint Peter's in the early morning is quite different from the way one experiences it later in the day. First, it is easy to enter with there usually being no line at the security check point. Secondly, much of what is closed to the public later in the day is open at this time of the morning. With each visit, I was to discover more and more of the Church.
This first morning I walked into the Church for the second time and was still trying to orient myself to it. I stood before Michaelangelo's Pieta by myself (later in the day you are lucky if you can get anywhere near the front of the glass panel). I walked down the center of the church and looked at the inscriptions showing where other large churches of the world would end in comparison to this Basilica.
Then I encountered an image from the past. Priests vested in green, all with their backs to me at the many side altars were offering Mass in the new rite in the old way. As I would walk by a different language would greet me. French at this altar, Italian here, German here, Spanish here and English at yet another altar. On this Sunday morning a large group of was gathering to process to one of the altars (I think it was the altar of Pope St. Leo the Great)--these were the Heralds of the Gospel. Present in the procession were both the male and female members and their beautiful chanting filled St. Peter's that early morning.
Since I was planning on attending mass later with the family, I did not participate in any of the Masses that morning but settled into the Blessed Sacrament chapel and prayed the office and the rosary. But on subsequent mornings I was to have some great experiences in early morning St. Peter's.
On the way back to rouse the family, I stopped in at a coffee bar to pick up some pastries and to have an expresso. I ordered un caffe and was met with the familiar response "Americano or expresso?" always giving me the sense that however I was asking it was a dead giveaway that I wasn't Italian. In fact throughout my time in Rome people would address me before I opened my mouth in English, as an American--so I must look like a typical American.
After the pastry consumption it was back to St. Peter's square to meet up with Charleston, South Carolina seminarian Jeffrey Kirby who is in Rome attending the North American College. Through my friend the Bishop of Charleston we had arranged for Jeffrey to give us tour of St. Peter's and he did a marvelous job of filling in the blanks that my first two unattended visits had already raised.
One question I had involved St. Peter's square. Is there a marker where Pope John Paul II was shot? Jeff informed us that in fact one pavement stone had originally been removed after the incident because it contained a drop of blood from the Pontiff and it had been replaced with a red porphyry stone. He pointed to the general direction where this stone was in the square but it would be until Friday before I would actually see it.
After Jeffrey's excellent tour we went back to the apartment for a few minutes, before heading back to St. Peter's square for Pope Benedict's Angelus. There were some Polish nuns in front of us and after the Pope's address I greeted one of them in Polish saying in "Praised be Jesus Christ!" She responded in great enthusiasm and started talk rapidly in Polish to which I had to tell her that I had pretty much exhuasted my Polish in that one phrase.
A short walk out of the square and we attended Sunday Mass in Italian at Santo Spiritu, a Church that seemed to have a special designation as a "Divine Mercy" church.