Last week Johnny and I visited Rome for several days. I love the city not only for the obvious reasons of beauty and history, but also since it is so easy to get everywhere by foot. We stayed at a small hotel near Trevi Fountain and walked. One of my favorite destinations is Santa Maria Maggiore. Its imposing architecture and the golden splendour is very different from anything I am used to in Judaism.
I have already visited the church, in my early twenties with my husband Tzvi. It was our first journey abroad and we started in Rome. On Sunday we went to Santa Maria Maggiore in time for Mass. It was held in one of the small chapels and the congregation stood around in a circle. The service was beautiful and moving, although we understood nothing. At the end the priest went around offering the congregation the host. We didn’t know what to do, on the one hand, the Holy Bread was clearly not for us to receive, on the other hand, could we refuse it? There was no time to discuss what to do, but we were anxious: when in Rome do as the Romans do etc. However, when the priest stood close by he elegantly skipped us and gave it to the next person.
We were amazed, it is not as though we were the only tourists in the crowd, as most of the congregation was not Italian. We didn’t look or dress differently from the rest of the people and we were as solemn as everyone else. How did the priest know? At the time we didn't comprehend the gravity and the significance of the ceremony and took the matter quite lightly.
Only years later when I studied the Church for my doctorate on Barbara Pym, I learnt that in Catholicism the Holy Eucharist was the most important of the seven sacraments. Pym was not Roman Catholic but Anglo-Catholic, a faction of the Church of England which is deeply influenced by Roman Catholicism. Thus the Anglo Catholic High Mass is also a sensual experience with vivid colors, candles, organ music, singing, incense, and fresh flowers and the clergy wear embroidered and eucharistic vestment.
The Church, with all its ceremonies, is an important part Pym's world and it is the setting of many of the scenes in her novels. In A Glass of Blessings, for example, an Anglo-Catholic service is compared by the protagonist to an Italian opera,
“The procession round the church with lighted candles reminded me of a scene from an Italian opera – Tosca, I suppose. There was something daring and Romish about the whole thing which added to one’s enjoyment."
In P.D. James’ novel Death in Holy Orders, which is devoted to the Church, abuse of the holy bread at a small theological college in the remote coast of East Anglia is literally a cause for murder.
I am not sure how the priest knew that we didn’t belong, perhaps our body language revealed our reluctance. Non-verbal cues are not easy to explain, but I was relieved and thankful that the astute priest did not put us in a position that would have showed lack of respect to his faith.