Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy


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Mystery Worshipper: Hart
Church: Santa Maria in Trastevere
Location: Rome, Italy
Date of visit: Wednesday, 3 January 2007, 8:30pm

The building

This church has the distinction of being the oldest church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in Rome. The current structure is only(!) 13th century, but it was built on the site of a third century basilica. Outside we find mosaics of the Virgin and ten other saintly women; inside, the church is marble west of the sanctuary and gold within it, 12th century mosaics providing the boundary. All pews were pointed toward the main sanctuary, despite there being half a dozen beautiful chapels to each side.

The church

This service was conducted by the Comunit di Sant'Egidio, who are a community of lay people dedicated to prayer and service. They work in a large variety of ministries, including programs for the elderly, the mentally disabled, immigrants and prisoners. They also sponsor an anti-death penalty advocacy. Their nightly prayer services (vespers Monday through Friday, the eucharist Saturday and Sunday) seem to draw a large crowd, mainly composed of young people. I wonder how many of the attendees are involved in the community's missions, either as ministers or recipients?

The neighborhood

Trastevere, from the Latin for "across the Tiber" and pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, has a fascinating history. Originally of little interest to the ancient Romans, it was by Republican times a posh residential area; Julius Caesar, among others, had a villa there. Traditionally, Trasteverini claim to be Romani dei Roma, descendants of the purest Roman stock. In medieval times, its narrow, winding lanes and relatively isolated location enabled Trastevere to become a fiercely self-sufficient and independent area having little contact with the rest of Rome. The English traveler and writer Fynes Moryson (1566–1630) wrote in 1617 that "because the aire is unwholesome... Trastevere is onely inhabited by Artisans and poore people." In modern times, wealthy bohemian types and tourists have become enchanted by Trastevere's unspoilt medieval character and flock to its trendy restaurants and pricy bars in search of the quintessential pizza.

The cast

Introductions don't seem to be the done thing in Roman services. Most of the service was led by the choir, but there was a reading and a brief reflection on it given by either a layman or a priest in civvies. I assume he was a member of the Comunit di Sant'Egidio.

What was the name of the service?

Vespers, but it bore little relation to any service of vespers I've seen before (e.g. no Magnificat)

How full was the building?

Pretty full – some pews had five people squashed in (very squashed! I hope they were friends) while most had around three comfortably spaced. That makes about 300 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. About 15 minutes before the service began, a greeter took up her station at the door, but I had already arrived and so she didn't get a chance to welcome me. The young man sitting next to me didn't actually introduce himself, but very kindly showed me which page we were on every time there was a non-obvious page turn.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was fine, but a long way away from the pew in front, which would have led to quite a trek had I wanted to use the kneeler. Luckily, there was no kneeling to be done in this service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reasonably quiet, but with quite a few people stopping to greet each other. I liked the sense of formed community this gave. It was a nice contrast to the equally admirable but different pilgrim feel many Roman churches have.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Pastore, dite chi avete vista // Annunciate chi nato sulla terra!" (Oh! Italian's easy! It's just a cross between Spanish and Latin.) "Shepherds, say what you have seen // Announce who is born upon the earth!" This was the antiphon for the first chant.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Preghiera della Comunit published by the Comunità di Sant'Egidio. This was a collection of psalms, biblical canticles and office hymns (in Italian). Sadly, it was words without the dots, but the chants were all easy to pick up. I'd heard wonderful tales of headsets that translated what was going on into a variety of different languages and saw a few people who seemed to be using them. Quite where you got them from I couldn't work out, though.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ accompanied the chants sensitively, in a way that encouraged out-loud participation.

Did anything distract you?

It's hard not to be distracted in such a beautiful church! I was also a little embarrassed when I triple crossed myself before the reading, thinking it was from the gospel of St John. I then noticed no one else had crossed themselves and realised it was from one of St John's epistles.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

I'll say relaxed. The vast majority of the service consisted of chanting, in a vaguely Gelineau-ish style. I'd heard this service compared to Taiz but, unlike Taiz, the chants were wordy rather than mantra-like and there was no period of silent reflection.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

3 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – It was short, but he probably said a lot, as he spoke incredibly quickly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

I'm afraid he spoke too quickly for me to apply my Spanish-Latin-cross decyphering method.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was wonderful to spend so much time singing along with so many other people (almost everyone was joining in out loud). People who say Catholics can't sing need to come and visit! It was also great to see a comfortably full church for a daily service that didn't fulfill any obligation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I wish I could have gotten one of the headsets so I could have understood the reflection. Possibly this was my fault for turning up before the welcome lady had installed herself.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

It's a little hard to differentiate clearly "looking lost" from "standing in awe of beautiful side chapels." However, while I was attempting to put on my best lost look, a huge crowd of teenagers stormed into the sacristy. A few minutes later, they stormed out again and through another door. I was wondering if there was post-service coffee, but an inspection revealed that they had gone into the sacristy to write prayer requests on pieces of paper and drop them into a bowl, and through the second door to leave the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Typically for Rome, there wasn't any. Given the time of day, I'm not sure I'd have wanted coffee anyway!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – If I lived in the area, I'd definitely stop by from time to time.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. I felt very much at one with the community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The flock of teenagers hithering and dithering after the service.

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