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||1383: Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy
Mystery Worshipper: Hart.
The church: Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
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 Comunitá 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 neighbourhood: 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 Comunitá
The date & time: Wednesday, 3 January 2007, 8.30pm.
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
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
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
What were the exact opening words of the
"Pastore, dite chi avete vista // Annunciate chi è 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
Preghiera della Comunitá 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
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
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 Taizé but, unlike Taizé, the chants were wordy rather
than mantra-like and there was no period of silent reflection.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
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
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
I'm afraid he spoke too quickly for me to apply my Spanish-Latin-cross decyphering
Which part of the service was like being in
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
How would you describe the after-service
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 this church your regular (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
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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