Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sistine Chapel Baptisms

There were a couple of extra-interesting moments this morning when the Pope baptised 13 babies during Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

For a start, we’d been given instructions to make sure we’d reached the Hall of Blessings by 09.30 because our passage was likely to be impeded by all the families and friends of the babies as they made their way towards the Sistine Chapel. Well, we weren’t quite blocked because the Hall of Kings, which separates the Sistine Chapel and the Hall of Tears, might have been full of visitors, but the Swiss Guards and the Vatican security personnel did a good job of directing them in one direction, whereas those of us heading to the Hall of Blessings, where we do the radio and television commentaries for papal ceremonies, waved our IDs and ploughed through the crowd.

The Hall of Tears is a simple, relatively unadorned area in which a new pope is given a chance to catch his breath before going onto the balcony for the first time. This morning, however, it might possibly have been a place of tears of a different variety because it had taken on a new identity: that of a parking place for prams! There were two rows of them!

Mass was beautiful, but the babies added their own special flavour. Once again, I blessed the expertise of the cameramen of the Vatican Television Centre (CTV) for their quick thinking and skill. Because of quick observation and good work, the camera moved from the face of Pope Benedict as he gave his homily, speaking about the joy of the new life that was about to be bestowed on the babies in Baptism, to one of the ‘older’ infants (3 months old?). Was it coincidence or Providence that, as the new life was described, the face of this particular baby was wreathed in smiles again and again? It was a truly lovely moment on film that I’m sure the family will treasure. Yet it also had, unknown to the baby, its own theological significance since the occasion was genuinely joyful.

As far as I could see and hear, only one of the infants cried when the water was poured on its head. Twelve of them were quiet, one apparently sleeping through the proceedings.

Of course the Sistine Chapel is incredibly beautiful. With the ceiling depicting Creation and the whole of Salvation History, and the wall behind the altar covered with the magnificent fresco of the Resurrection, anybody would be justified in feeling dazzled by its splendour… But one of the babies was fascinating and fascinated as it lay in its godmother’s arms, staring fixedly at the ceiling. Did we have a future Michelangelo in our midst? Who knows?

The Offertory Procession was also a special occasion, composed as it was, of some of the brothers and sisters of the newly-baptised. The younger members of the procession couldn’t have been holding the gifts more carefully if they had tried. They were shy as they approached the Pope, but the studied concentration as they held each item was lovely to see. I could just imagine that their parents had instilled in them the importance of what they were doing, and so, as is only possible with very young children, the intensity of their grip was amazing: I could almost see white knuckles!

Yet the solemnity of the occasion was also unique. As soon as the Holy Father had received each gift and blessed each child, they turned back towards their parents…and most of them ran back to their places! Well, he did say that it was a family occasion.

When Mass was over, it was also interesting as we headed back towards the exit. The congregation was spilling out of the Sistine Chapel into the Hall of Kings, and it was just like any Sunday morning outside any church anywhere in the world. There were groups of people chatting to each other, children running around and babies deciding they needed a feed. So what if they were surrounded by priceless frescoes and standing on brilliantly polished marble floors beneath a breathtakingly beautiful ceiling? There’s a lovely similarity in the Church across the world, whether it’s in St. Peter’s or in the smallest church in the most remote regions of the world. It’s family.

Welcome to our family to all the newly-baptised.

God bless,
Sr. Janet