We are very grateful to Dr Donald Prudlo, Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, for sharing with us this account of the festivities held in Milan in honor of St Peter Martyr a few days ago. Today, April 29th, is the traditional day of the feast, but at the Basilica of Saint Eustorgius, where the Saint’s relics are kept, it is usually transferred to the nearest Sunday. Dr Prudlo is a specialist in the study of the cult of the Saints, and has often provided commentary for Vatican Radio during canonization ceremonies.
|The Basilica of Saint Eustorgius|
Yet even while recalling the universal nature of the Church, each local saint is an incarnational presence in a particular place. Each patron saint comes with interesting local customs, that one can usually only see in a certain location, usually only once a year. Peter’s feast is no different. It is still celebrated near its date on the traditional Calendar, April 29, something which is quite common, at least in Italy. This further increases the special nature of the feast, for it is like according an extra celebration to the patronal saint, one for the locality, and one for the Universal Church. (Peter’s was removed from the universal calendar in the post-Concilar reform, but he retains a commemoration in the Dominican order on June 4, the date of one of his relic translations).
The parish had two Masses on Sunday in Peter’s honor, each with its own particular characteristics. Both were in the revised Ambrosian rite which -- while much simplified -- retains certain carryovers from the old Ambrosian Rite that Peter would have been familiar with in his lifetime. (One particularly medieval moment was when a dog started barking in the back of church during the sermon, particularly apposite for Peter when one recalls the old nursery rhyme “Hark, hark the dogs do bark, the Beggars are coming to town.”) A common point between the two forms is the burning of a paper globe high above the Gospel side of the altar in a special wrought-iron carrier borne by two angels. On the globe was the word “Credo,” which to reminds us that Peter’s was a life lived for the Creed. His story begins with him defending the Creed against his angry heretical uncle as a seven-year-old, and ends as he begins to recite “Credo in unum Deum” when he was struck dead. Peter’s life was dedicated to a radical living out of the doctrine of the Church in all his endeavors: his preaching, his pursuit of heretics, and his warm relations with religious and laity. At Sant’ Eustorgio, the globe is set afire by a triple candle. This represents the fire of Charity which, when added to doctrine, sets afire the whole of the earth; the triple candle also stands for the faith in the Trinity, which is the principle of evangelization to light the world ablaze.
The first Mass concluded with a procession into the Portinari chapel, usually behind an annoyingly expensive paywall, but open to the faithful for prayer this one day of the year. As the procession entered, the skull of Peter of Verona was displayed in a marvelous reliquary. Discovered to be incorrupt at the translation of his relics in 1253, and again in 1340, his head was removed for the veneration of the faithful. Indeed, one can still see the beard and tonsure of the Dominican, as well as the brutal head wounds that caused his death. So many of the relics one sees in Europe are such remote and sometimes unknown figures it is difficult to associate their bones with their stories. With Peter we have powerful eyewitness accounts, and a clear record of cultic preservation, a fact that brings home the actions of that fateful Sabbato in Albis over 750 years ago and recorded in famous paintings from Fra Angelico to Titian.
Once past the skull, the glorious Portinari chapel was completely opened, a masterpiece of Christian architecture, with perfect renaissance proportions and frescoes painted by Vincenzo Foppa. (One of the more interesting is the rare image of a Virgin Mary with devil horns, an apparition sent by the devil, which Peter dispels by showing it the Blessed Sacrament).
After that, deacons were present all day to present a relic of Peter for veneration, including a prayer against headaches very popular with the Milanese. (Peter’s patronage against headaches should be evident from his iconography; he is usually pictured with a giant knife sticking out of his head). This ritual included a prayer composed by Blessed Ildefonse Schuster.
O God, who did grant to your Blessed Priest and Martyr Peter the grace to write with his blood that Symbol of the Faith which, after he had diligently learned it as a child, and then become a Preacher of your Gospel, he preached undaunted to the people against the errors of the heretics; through his prayers grant that Your Church might preach the Faith and confirm it in good works. Through Christ our Lord.Hundreds of the faithful came through the day to venerate the head and tomb, and to kiss the relic. Such lived devotion to the Saints, so rare in majority Protestant countries, one can find alive and well in the historically Catholic areas of the world. These are the deep roots of the much maligned “cultural Catholics,” whose appreciation of the faith is often far deeper than many realize (even if greatly restricted in scope). Indeed this residual devotion is certainly a foothold in the re-evangelization of the unchurched in these areas.
In the second Mass, we were privileged to see an assembly of various representatives of the Misericordia confraternities. Many ambulance services in Italy are run privately, by volunteers of the Misericordia. These were originally founded by Peter of Verona, and have been in existence for nearly 800 years, helping the sick and wounded. Another aspect of robustly Catholic culture, these fraternities were and, to a certain extent still are, religious in nature; it was Peter’s genius to see it as effective ways for the laity not only to have improved religious observance and to do good works, but to sanctify the world, and to firm up the ranks against heresy. Representatives of the Confraternities had the honor of processing in with the relic of the skull and enthroning it for Mass.
After the Gospel, the priest blessed the short black penitential robes, the symbols of lay piety, bound by a rosary, and including a black mask, originally to preserve the anonymity of the members, who also and promise to take no pay save for a glass of water. Peter knew that doctrine and works go together, and that Mercy has been at the heart of the Church’s mission from the very beginning. The postulants, dressed in their colorful emergency attire, then made their promises to observe the constitutions, and then were helped to vest by their sponsors.
Mass concluded with a solemn blessing in the name of St. Peter, and then the faithful came up for a chance to venerate the skull relic, guided by the new members of the confraternity.
The living veneration of the saints is one of the oldest manifestations of orthodox Christianity in the world, dating from the first years of the Church. It is something we hold in common with our Eastern brothers, a genuinely traditional ecumenical principle. The Saints are like divine strikes of lightning, creations of grace scattered throughout every region and time of the Church, models of the holiness and of the possibilities of graced human nature. The revival and cultivation of their cults, pilgrimages, veneration, and prayers for their intercession, must be a vital part of any genuine renewal.