Impressions of Rome: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Each year the Church’s “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” (from January 18 – 25), concludes in Rome on January 25th, Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, with a Vespers service lead by the pope in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. This important Roman basilica, burial place of Saint Paul the Apostle, is maintained by monks of our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation.

Our curia of Sant’Ambrogio was invited to participate with the monastic community of Saint Paul at Vespers on January 25th, along with the pope and dozens of representatives of various Christian confessions from around the world. Of course the point was not just to gather, but to continuing praying, every day, for the unity of all Christians.

In addition to the specially invited guests of various Christian denominations, many hundreds of others were present for Vespers on January 25, including cardinals, bishops, abbots, monks, nuns, religious (both women and men) of various Orders as well as laity.

The Sistine Choir, composed of many dozens of singers, did a splendid job of chanting the Office, which began with a solemn procession into the basilica by the resident monks (some twenty in number) at 5:25 pm, along with the pope and his assistants. Ten or so Swiss Guards were also in attendance as special protectors of the pope. This is always the case for papal events, wherever they might be held. Also, Vatican police were inside the basilica, and the security outside seemed particularly high for this event with representatives from many nations and faith traditions, as well as the pope.

Father Luigi Tiana, who is the Procurator General at our curia, and I arrived at around 3:30 pm. We were welcomed by Abbot Roberto Dotta, of Saint Paul Abbey (in Italian: Abbazia di San Paolo fuori la Mura) and eventually we were shown to our places in the sanctuary. Gradually people arrived, including our new Benedictine Abbot Primate Gregory Polan (former Abbot of Conception Abbey in Missouri), who now resides at Sant’Anselmo in Rome. With him was the new Prior of Sant’Anselmo, Father Mauritius Wilde, until very recently prior of Christ the King Priory in Schyler, Nebraska. I had an opportunity to greet both of them whom I have known for some years and who have both been to Christ in the Desert.

Also attending was Father Juan Javier Flores, a monk of the Abbey of Silos in Spain, who is “Rector Magnifico” of the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo here in Rome, run by the Benedictines. In American parlance, President is the best translation I can come with for “Rector Magnifico.”

Father Juan Javier and I were both students in Rome thirty years ago, living at Sant’Anselmo, along with our now Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda Tamayo. It was a pleasure to say hello to Father Juan Javier again. He also has been to Christ in the Desert, a few years ago, and always happy to see us.

By 5:00 pm the immense Basilica of Saint Paul was full with clergy and laity for the January 25th Vespers service, which lasted about one hour. I was delighted to be present, see old friends as well as the pope again. He presided at Vespers, gave a short talk midway about the important work of Christian dialogue and unity and made special mention of the some of the invited guests, which included Orthodox and Anglican representatives.

A humorous occurrence happened while waiting in the sacristy to be seated an hour or so before Vespers, around 4:00 pm. Several Swiss Guard were assembling in the sacristy, yet had plenty of time to wait until they donned their red-feathered helmets and took up their spears to be in place in the sanctuary for the arrival of the pope and the beginning of Vespers. In the sacristy one of the young guards came over to me. I imagine he thought I was a monk of the abbey we were all at, and asked (in Italian, with a German accent) if he could sit down in an empty chair near where I was standing. For whatever reason, he did look tired, maybe already having done a long stretch as a guard at the Vatican that day. Guards are required to remain standing at various places (such as at gates and doors) at the Vatican for extended periods.

In any case, I assured the guard (in Italian, with my American accent) that is was fine to be seated and immediately a second guard grabbed another free chair next to the first guard. Initially I thought the first guard, now sitting near where I was standing, had a hearing aid on. I began to speak with him about the necessary early arrival for Vespers and he seemed willing to converse, but then I quickly realized that he and all the rest of his group have headphones (not hearing aids!) to receive instructions or whatever from command headquarters. Something was being conveyed to the guard as I began to talk with him and he had to turn his attention to that. Thus ended our conversation.

Within a few minutes of sitting down, an older officer of the Swiss Guard (I presume that is what he was, though not dressed like the younger guards) came into the sacristy and the guards (including the two sitting down) went to put on their helmets and get their lances, which until then were leaning against the wall, and went into the basilica proper.

The attending guards were all dressed in their famous brightly-colored ceremonial garb, which some say was designed by Michelangelo himself, who lived from 1475 to 1564, and among other claims to fame, painter of the Sistine Chapel. Others dispute the claim that Michelangelo designed the Swiss Guard uniform.

After Vespers and back in the sacristy to collect our coats and hats (remember, it is still January), several of the Swiss Guard willingly stood around some of the guests, including monks, for a few quick snapshots (if that is what they are still called when taken with a phone). It was all very informal and nice to see the guards enjoying themselves. This is maybe like folks sometimes looking at monks and wondering or asking us if we ever have fun, laugh, and tell jokes. We, along with the Swiss Guard, would have to say, “Yes, of course.”

This reminds me also of a story I heard not long after the election of Pope Francis. Apparently a Swiss Guard or two is assigned to watch over the pope’s residence, especially when he is sleeping. According to the story, the pope, on leaving his room once or twice, noticed the same Swiss Guard standing at attention. The pope told him to sit down, and the guard replied, “We are commanded to remain standing during our guard duty.” The pope told him, “I give the orders around here; sit down,” then proceeded to get the guard a cup of coffee. This pope indeed does not stand on formality!

You can watch the entire Vespers at:

If you “need” to see me, I am in the front, to the pope’s left (or on the right side of your computer screen) just behind the two chairs with visiting dignitaries.