Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Solemn Vespers and Exposition of the Relics of the Passion, Fifth Sunday of Lent, at the Vatican

On the Fifth Sunday of Lent (First Sunday of the Passion in the 1962 Calendar), St. Peter's at the Vatican is witness to a particularly elaborate celebration of Vespers that begins with a long penitential litany-procession composed of dozens of priests and seminarians, as well as the basilica's canons, around the nave, cleared of worshippers, who are clustered in the side-aisles facing inward.

After Vespers at the Altar of the Chair, a bell rings and a prelate and other assistants appear on the balcony above the monumental statue of St. Helena, which has been draped with velvet and adorned with candles. Great clouds of incense have begun to rise from the nave floor scores of feet below. The relics shown and the manner of showing them has varied somewhat in recent years; a colleague in Rome mentioned one year he had seen the Holy Lance, while during my time there the people were blessed with the large reliquary cross holding splinters of the True Cross, and then the Veronica in its silver case was simply shown to the people without blessing.

A current correspondent in Rome notes this same order was repeated last year, and was viewed by some (perhaps incorrectly) as diminishing somehow the status of the Sudarium as a relic. Whatever the reasons behind this choice, which can only be guessed at, this video reproduced below indicates the Veronica was used to bless the people this year with a cruciform gesture, first to the front and then to the sides. I have seen woodcuts from the fifteent century that show a very similar ceremony at Old St. Peter's associated with the same relic, so there is clearly an old precedent at work here.

For those of you in Rome for Holy Week, I recall that the ritual is repeated on the morning of Good Friday, though as my memory may be faulty it is best to check ahead for time and date.

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