Celebrating the Easter Season and the Easter Vigil in St. Mary Major's Basilica in Rome.
Following an exciting ride through Rome’s midday traffic, passing by the UN headquarters for food problems in the developing world, missing the Coliseum and somehow finding St. John Lateran, we arrived punctually at St. Mary Major, just before noon on Holy Saturday to be trained for our roles during the Mass. Twelve Legionary of Christ seminarians were to serve the Easter Vigil at this most ancient of Roman basilicas. We quickly met Don Giuseppe and Carlos, the two main helpers of the ceremoniere, or master of ceremonies: Monsignor Adriano Paccanelli. This most solemn of Masses, with the Liturgy of Light and Blessing of water for the Baptismal font, must be prepared and rehearsed well.
We moved to the entrance of the church to practice the liturgy of light and solemn procession, while Roman crowds looked on curiously to see what so many seminarians were doing in front of the basilica on Saturday at noon. Monsignor Paccanelli explained that we would make no reverences, or little bows, until after the Gloria in the Mass. There is nothing to rejoice about until Christ is risen from the dead.
Processing solemnly into the Church, we stopped three times so the deacon could sing “Lumen Christi”: “light of Christ”. This ceremony would be particularly moving in the evening, when all would receive the flame for their candles from the great Easter Candle, lit from the Paschal flame. Monsignor Paccanelli motivated us to live the liturgy well. All is done for the glory of God. We were to learn our roles well, so that we could contribute to this liturgy at the service of the glory of God. He offered a nice meditation on what it means to serve Mass and why a priest should really be at home in the liturgy. Blacksmiths forge iron; priests celebrate the liturgy. It was a good lesson for us twelve seminarians.
To serve is to reign. This would be the phrase to summarize the many lessons that Monsignor Paccanelli would leave us in the course of the day. He kept the practice light-hearted with his humorous commentaries on what the canons (priests attached to the basilica) would be doing during Mass. Above all, he transmitted a love for the liturgy and for God, whose benignity and goodness we celebrate in the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and died on Good Friday to save us from our sins. Everything in the liturgy is for the glory of God. This helped us all to have a good disposition for the real celebration that evening, at 8:30 P.M.
In his brief homily, Cardinal Law mentioned the great symbols of Easter: light and water. They are certainly the prominent aspects of the liturgy and help to recall the greatness of the Easter message. Christ is the light who comes into a world of darkness to share his radiance. Christ is the water who comes into the world to wash away our sins. As I got up just before dawn to pray this Easter morning, I saw houses in every direction. There were many small lights, but none could compare with the great glow of the sun just about to break over the horizon. The thought came to me that the great tragedy of Easter is that so many people, represented by those little lights do not know that they are redeemed and that Christ wants to be their light.
Thankfully, after Mass our return home was seemingly uneventful, passing by the Piazza della Repubblica and the Monument of Vittorio Emmanuele before crossing the Tiber and heading home. Light and water accompanied us on the journey home and continue to accompany us in this Easter season. The liturgy of Easter Vigil invites us to reach out to those who have not received the illumination of Christ’s light and cleansing of his baptismal water. For whom can you be light and water?
Br. Nicholas Sheehy, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.