As I’ve written before, I’m not religious. But when we found ourselves in Rome during Easter Week in 2009, I figured we’d go all out and attend Mass at the Vatican (plus I figured that seeing the Pope would score enough points with my Catholic mother-in-law to get me in her good graces for at least a year or two).
First step: Getting tickets. They weren’t as hard to come by as I thought they’d be. We requested the free tickets through the Bishops Office for US Visitors Office to the Vatican by email about two months before the Mass. We told that we received them about two weeks after the request, but there was a hitch: we had to pick them up at the US Visitors Office in person. Because we were flying in on Good Friday, we paid about 30 Euros for a courier service to pick them up and bring them to our hotel.
We were doing a lot of the activities at the Vatican that week, as I was researching a travel story on Dan Brown’s book Angels & Demons, so we stayed at Starhotels Michelangelo, a hotel geared for business travelers just around the corner on the northwest side of Vatican City. The room had a balcony where we could see St. Peter if we turned our heads, and came with a free breakfast.
While the hotel’s location was convenient for the Mass, we found it out of the way for exploring the rest of Rome. The neighborhood was dead at night compared to others, with no great restaurants to speak of. If I was going to do it again, I’d book an apartment on the other side of the river or make sure I was on the south side of the Vatican closer to the subway line.
The Mass started at 10:30 a.m. so we started over there around 9 a.m. The skies were overcast and the temperatures felt a bit cool, so we dressed casually, as did most people around us.
There were security checkpoints, run by both plainclothes police and the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. Even though their uniforms make them look like extras from a Renaissance Fair, the Swiss Guard are a very serious group, with a tradition of serving as bodyguards for popes, kings and emperors that dates back to the 15th century.
The Vatican Mass is open seating, unless you’re a VIP and have reserved seats near the front (most of the people up there seemed to be priestly honchos from around the world). We were able to get seats perhaps 20 feet in front of the obelisk that’s in the center of the St. Peter’s Square. I was surprised at how orderly and polite everyone was; usually queuing in Italy is not for the fainthearted.
The atmosphere before the Mass was fun – it seemed more like a rock concert than a religious ceremony, with people singing, waving flags and clapping. Much different than the staid church services I remember growing up.
The people seated around us were from all over the world. The older woman next to me was from South Korea, and she was clearly thrilled to be the Mass. She smiled and shook my hand, several times, and at the end of the service, she gave me a small religious icon to keep.
Then the bells in St. Peter started ringing and the actual Mass began. Just as with any rock concert, the proceedings were shown on a jumbo-tron that had been put up in St. Peter Square. Much of the Mass was incomprehensible to me, as the songs were in Latin and the homily was in Italian. I read a transcript later that said much of the prayers focused on the Italian victims of earthquakes which had rocked the country a few weeks earlier.
For the Eucharist, priests came down the aisles every few feet to serve the lines of people. Considering it was Italy, the queues were relatively well-behaved. (As a non-Catholic, I didn’t take part).
Even if you aren’t religious, there’s something uplighting and moving about being among the faithful on a major holiday.
Lots of museums and religious sites in Rome close on Easter Sunday (and Monday, which is also a holiday in Rome). It was our first full day in the city though, so we spent it checking out the sites that don’t require an entrance pass such as Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Strolling around Rome is the best way to see the city anyway!
A lot of restaurants popular with Romans close on Easter Sunday (and Monday, which is also a holiday in Rome). You’ll have better luck with restaurants in the touristy areas, and of course, the major hotels such as Hotel Hassler have big (and expensive) Easter dinners. We lucked out, though. As we wandered near the Pantheon, we saw a restaurant in an alley nearby called Osteria del Sostegno, They served a limited menu because it was Easter, but we ending up finding the best pasta dish of the trip here – a fantastic white truffle tagliatelle with mushrooms. Yum!
All in all, Rome at Easter seemed a little more crowded than normal, but not overly so. We were able to get tickets to the Vatican Scavi, the Borghese Gallery and some tours, all of which we booked 8 to 6 weeks in advance. So if you’re traveling to Rome during Holy Week, you do have to plan ahead a bit.