Feast of the Immaculate Conception
December 8 marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with many beautiful Roman traditions. This year, on the eve of the Feast, First Vespers were led by Mons. Guido Marini inside the Sistine Chapel. It’s another-worldly experience to be in the Sistine Chapel for a religious celebration, instead of the usual Vatican Museums’ experience of being squeezed in like sardines and constantly hearing, “Silenzio! No foto! Silenzio!” Already entering the Apostolic Palace via the Bronze Gate and climbing the Royal Staircase on the way to the Chapel is an experience in itself, one that I like to draw out.
A Nativity Scene with many moving pieces at the entry to the Sistine Chapel momentarily draws my attention away from Michelangelo’s masterpieces. I choose a seat along the edge of the chapel so that while we are singing Vespers, I can look up and meditate on the scenes from the Book of Genesis. I’m inescapably drawn to the image of Eve, curled up intimately under God’s arm, and hence already in God’s heart and mind as he is giving life to Adam. Contemplating first the role of Eve, and then Mary as the model of purity and holiness for all humanity, is a glorious way to embrace the Season of Advent.
"The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin." (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)
The actual Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception begins early on December 8 at the Spanish Steps. A little before 7:30 am, firefighters climb to the top of the 12 meter high memorial column in Piazza Mignanelli to lay wreaths of flowers on the Virgin Mary’s arm and at her feet. After the initial wreath is placed on her arm, locals come forward with their own bunches of flowers to offer and firemen take turns ascending the long ladder to lay them at her feet, while people gather underneath to pray the Rosary and then sing the Salve Regina.
All over in about half an hour, I have time to enjoy an empty Spanish Steps (thanks to the rain) and return to the Vatican in time for the 8:30 am Latin Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica - celebrated this year by Mons. Edgar Pena Parra. If I’d missed it, there would have been ample opportunity to attend a Mass in any one of the 973 churches in Rome since today is a holy day of obligation for all Catholics. Pilgrims who attended the Mass in St. Peter’s were then delighted to be able to visit the Grotto of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens. Instead I made my way up to the rooftop of the Basilica to enjoy a cappuccino in the sunshine, and I visited the grotto later that afternoon.
To mark the feast day, Pope Francis prayed the Rosary at midday in St. Peter’s Square and made a special plea to Mary to care for refugees. Later he made his annual visit to the Spanish Steps. At 4:30 pm he laid a wreath and said a prayer in veneration of Our Lady. The crowds were so thick at the Spanish Steps that most people were not even able to catch a glimpse of the Pope. I was one of the ones who couldn’t get close so I commiserated with a lovely cup of tea at Babingtons Tea Room.