Impressions of Rome: City of Bells

As I well recall from living here thirty years ago, from 1985 to 1988, Rome was and is a “City of Bells.” Mostly heard in the morning, at midday and in the evening, especially on Sundays, the city is often “alive” with the pealing of huge bells.

The headquarters (curia) of the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation’s is at Sant’Ambrogio, the ancestral property of the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Ambrose of Milan (who lived from 337-397 AD) and where I live today. We are quite near the main Synagogue of Rome, but also the Catholic churches of Santa Maria in Portico in Campitelli (the parish in which our curia is located), as well as the Jesuit-run church of the Gesu’ (Jesus) and also the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven).

When bells ring out in the course of the day, I am never sure precisely from which direction the sound is coming, but I presume it is likely from one the three churches mentioned above. It might even be from somewhere else, since with a multitude of churches in every part of this city, the ringing of bells seems to be part and parcel of any open church. At the same time, there are many churches shuttered or used for other purposes, whose bells are now presumably silent as well.

What is the origin of church bells? I presume they came into being primarily to get people’s attention and call them to a specific place and time of worship. Bells were and are typically rung to announce that Holy Mass was about to begin and also to recall the Incarnation (Birth of Christ). From centuries past, this was usually done at about 6:00 am, 12 noon and 6:00 pm, accompanied by the praying of the “Angelus,” which begins with the words, “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,” from whence comes the names “Angelus,” and followed by the response, “And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

I love the old joke of the youngster who goes to Confession and is given by the priest the penance of saying the Angelus in church. Shortly after leaving the confessional, the child is heard, knelling in the pew and saying, “Bong, bong, bong,” making the sound of the three rings of the bell for each section of the Angelus. All that the youngster knew was that church bells were rung when “the Angelus was prayed,” but the words of the prayer he hadn’t learned.

One may ask: with all the bells, is Rome a religious city? It certainly appears so. Are all there believers and practitioners of the Catholic faith? No, but the “sights and sounds” of the Catholic faith are always evident in this city of some 2.5 million people and containing literally hundreds of Catholic churches.

I want to say something about the Divine Office used here at Sant’Ambrogio and the celebration of Holy Mass. The Opus Dei (Divine Office) is prayed in Italian here, using a single bound volume prepared more than thirty years ago by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of the Assumption of Mary, most often simply called “Praglia,” (pronounced PRAW-lee-uh, with accent on the first syllable), located in the Diocese of Padua, in the north of Italy.

The distribution of the entire Old Testament Book of Psalms (150 psalms in number) in the Praglia version of the Divine Office is based on the work of the late Father Notker Fuglister, OSB, a Swiss Benedictine monk. In the “schema,” as it is called (literally a scheme or plan), the 150 psalms can be prayed at the Offices of Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline in the course of one week.

In his Holy Rule, completed about 500 AD, Saint Benedict makes it clear that his monks should pray the entire Psalter (150 psalms) over the span of a single week. Saint Benedict lays out an arrangement for such a distribution of the psalms, but also indicates that it can be re-arranged if an abbot so desires. In Saint Benedict’s scheme, quite a few psalms are repeated each day (for example at Psalm 3 and 94 at Vigils; Psalms 66, 50, 148, 149 and 150 at Lauds; Psalms 4, 90 and 133 at Compline. The Fuglister scheme or distribution of the Psalter has no repetition of psalms. That is, each of the 150 psalms appears to be read and prayed only once in the course of a week.

With the basic principle of praying all of the150 psalms within a week, Father Fuglister developed what is now called “Schema B” among Benedictines. It is an accepted and acceptable distribution of the Book of Psalms and the Praglia books includes the requisite hymns, antiphons, Sacred Scripture readings and responses as well.

Though definitely not the fuller scheme which Saint Benedict offers in his Rule, the Praglia books are a thoughtful possibility for praying the Office in Italian. No music is provided in the book, so at present the Office is simply spoken here, that is, recited, rather than sung. On one level I miss singing the Office; on another, since I am still settling in to another language, Italian, it is easier for me to recite than sing the Office.

At present we gather in the chapel here to pray Lauds each morning at 7:00 am, followed by Holy Mass. Breakfast follows Mass, and after that there is time for work. At 12:30 pm we meet for the offices of Sext and None, one following the others. That is followed by the main meal, pronzo, at about 12:45 pm. Afterwards there is some time free for rest, exercise, lectio divina and praying, then some time for work again. Vespers is prayed at 7:00 pm, followed by the evening meal, called cena. The meal usually ends a little after 8:00 pm, followed by Compline. The day thus ends for us by about 8:30 pm.

I should also mention that the small “house chapel” here is on the second floor, in the residence part of the building, thus not open to the public. This is not a monastery in the regular sense of the word, and so does not function as such. There is a larger church here, dedicated to Saint Ambrose, though it is closed most of the time. It is quite cold and its size makes it an impractical place for the monks here to assemble. Like the rest of the building we are in, the church is also owned by the Italian state.

Returning to an explanation of the Opus Dei (Divine Office) here, missing are the Offices of Vigils and Terce. Hopefully with more now here, or soon to be, in residence, the Office of Vigils (probably lasting half an hour or so) and Terce might be added. The needed texts are in the books from the Praglia monks and thus easily incorporated into the horarium or daily schedule. In any case, some hours each day are set aside for prayer in the chapel here, for which I am grateful, as the Opus Dei is part and parcel of the Benedictine life.

Famous and beautiful churches abound close to where I live, many of them just a few blocks away or less. On January 23rd I made visits to the Gesu, run by the Jesuits, San Ignazio, also a Jesuit church, and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, under the care of the Dominican Order. Each of the structures is stunning in many respects, though of the three, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is my favorites. It is the only completely Gothic churches in Rome. As such, has an air of majesty from a more distant era than the more recent Baroque churches of the Gesu and San Ignazio, beautiful as those are as well.

Sopra Minerva (its usual nickname) was built on the site where the ancient temple of Isis and Serapis once stood. During the Middle Ages the temple was mistakenly identified with the Roman goddess Minerva. That name for the place “Sopra (on top of) Minerva” stuck. The church contains the tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena, under the high altar. Though from Siena, Catherine died in Rome. Blessed Fra Angelico, the renowned Dominican painter, is buried there. A superb statue of the Redeemer by Michelangelo stands to the left of the high altar. The stained glass windows in Sopra Minerva are also a rare sight in a Roman church. Overall, it is a very beautiful church.

I don’t want these postings to be a guidebook to the churches of Rome, so will leave my reflections at that. Along the way to and from Sopra Minerva (which is very near the Pantheon) there is number of high end religious goods stores, with vestments, sacred vessels, art and many other items for sale. These shops are enjoyable to visit too, though I will hold that indulgence until a time when I can take someone else along. I am a notorious “window shopper” and hopefully someone I take will actually be interested in buying something for their private collection, church or religious community.