Friday, March 12, 2021

An Artist Monk Describes the Celebration of St Gregory’s 1300th Anniversary in Rome in 1904

In recent months I have tremendously enjoyed reading aloud at home two books recommended to me by my son. They were written by a most fascinating individual, Dom Willibrord Verkade, O.S.B. Jan, as he was known prior to entering religion, was an up-and-coming Dutch painter in a post-impressionist style who hob-nobbed with fin de siècle Parisian poets and artists before he converted to Catholicism and became a monk of Beuron. He then specialized in Beuronese art, under the tutelage of Desiderius Lenz; the Wikipedia article about him is spotty, but accurate so far as it goes.

The first book, which takes us from his childhood through his conversion, is called Yesterdays of an Artist-Monk, translated by J. L. Stoddard (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1930), and fairly obtainable on the used book market. The second, called In Quest of Beauty (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1935), which starts with Verkade’s farewell to his family and entrance into the novitiate and then describes his life as a monk-artist, is nearly impossible to find; we are reading a copy borrowed from the Benedictine College library in Kansas.

In this second volume, Dom Willibrord talks about attending a grand pontifical liturgy with Pope St Pius X in 1904, in honor of the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Gregory the Great in 604. His description is so vivid and so charming—including the amusing detail that, although he was singing in the schola, he whipped out a sketchbook and drew a quick portrait of the pope—that I felt it was supremely fitting to share it today, on the traditional feastday of this truly great pope. (It also, incidentally, offers an interesting historical record of how and by whom chant was executed at the start of the movement to restore chant to its “pride of place.”)

The following year, as I was still in Monte Cassino [painting the crypt], I was allowed to visit Rome on the occasion of the celebration in honor of Saint Gregory the Great, the great Benedictine Pope whose thirteen-hundredth anniversary was being solemnized at St. Peter’s on March 12. It was a memorable occasion. Pius X celebrated a Pontifical High Mass at which the students of the International Benedictine College of Sant’ Anselmo constituted the schola or special choir, and I was privileged to sing among them. We sang the Proper, standing in our places on the right-hand side of the Confessio or Papal Altar. The Ordinary was chanted by a massed group of one thousand Roman students standing further out in the spacious transept.

In the great central nave of the basilica a crowd of over fifty thousand faithful from all parts of the Catholic world were gathered, and all awaited the solemn entry of the Holy Father with tense expectation. Suddenly we perceived a frantic waving of handkerchiefs far down near the portals, and we knew the Pope had entered. He had forbidden all cheering, which demanded some heroic restraint on the part of the volatile Italians, but they succeeded admirably well. Not a sound was heard, save a kind of rustling noise made by the restless movements of the vast throng. It was like the hum of the distant surf, or the whisper of a sudden breeze stirring in a grove of poplars.

The Holy Father came majestically toward us, carried on his sedia gestatoria, bestowing his blessing to right and left to acknowledge all those silent tributes of love and veneration. When he was borne past us, his paternal gaze rested upon our group of singers, and smilingly he blessed us too.

The Mass took its solemn course, the venerable Gregorian chant seeming to take on a special dignity and sonorousness for this occasion. Once the Holy Father’s face was turned directly toward me, as he sang the Preface. I made a rapid sketch of his rather plain but kindly countenance. What soft, luminous eyes he had! Occasions like these make Catholics realise what a great blessing it is to have a common father, one who truly loves and watches over them, a Pastor Vigilans…  (Dom Willibrord Verkade, In Quest of Beauty, pp. 105–7)

Sadly, photographs of pontifical ceremonies from over a hundred years ago are exceedingly rare and somewhat random. For example, as Gregory DiPippo pointed out to me, we have not a single photo from the solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception, or from the rededication of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was done two days later. So it’s not surprising that we may not have any photos from March 12, 1904. However, the following photos, one of Pius X on the sedia gestatoria, and the other of a pontifical Mass offered by the same in 1905 in St. Peter’s, would give us a good sense of the kind of thing Dom Willibrord was seeing.

Happy feast of St. Gregory the Great! May he, St Pius X, and all worthy successors of St Peter intercede for us.

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