Monday, September 19, 2005

The gift of the Priesthood

I caught his eye and he caught mine, though only for a split-second. I could see that he was elderly, I guess at least seventy. The seat beside him was free, and for a moment I was going to sit there; but then I noticed his magnifying glass and his breviary, so I decided to walk on to the rear end of the boat and let him say his Office in privacy.

This was a vaporetto boat, the 1530 service from Burano to Torcello; on Venice's public transport system, this is as far north as you can go. Today fewer than 100 people live on Torcello, but about a thousand years ago, Torcello was in fact the first part of Venice to be settled, and had, at one time, a population of up to 20,000.

Because of its relative remoteness and extremity, I wanted to visit Torcello; but I also intended to go to Mass at 4.30 pm. I assumed this would be in the byzantine Basilica. So the thought crossed my mind that he would be the celebrant.

The Byzantine influence on Venice is clear when you see St Mark's Basilica in the city proper, but also the fact that the Archbishop is not called Archbishop, but Patriarch.

The ferry made its five-minute trip, and arrived at Torcello pier, and I walked along the footpath. There are a few restaurants along the way. Getting to the Basilica took about ten minutes, so I first went into Santa Fosca church, beside the Basilica. Then I quickly went to the entrance of the Basilica, and prepared to pay the entry fee to the Basilica, as well as the Campanile.

I asked the young lady working there "Santa Messe, quatro mezzo" in my poor Italian. But she told me that it would actually be at four, and in Santa Fosca. It was nearly four now, so in I went and sat down. There were about a dozen to fifteen people in Santa Fosca church, mainly tourists, and I felt a bit embarrassed that the priest would come and say Mass to a possible one-person congregation. Then I saw him, with his bag in hand, as he went into a door to the right of the altar.

A young man came out with an ID around his neck indicating that he clearly worked there, and started to set up the altar, light the candles, and bring out the water and wine. At four, he came out robed in white vestments. I turned around, and saw that there were two ladies in the rear seat. Santa Fosca is quite a small church.

Also at four, the bells of the Basilica campanile began to ring, which would last nearly ten minutes. I could see the priest, with magnifying glass in right hand, often looking up from his lectionary to the door. The thought crossed my mind that he was probably expecting some "tourist" to walk in the front door and take a photo of the ceremony.

The young man served Mass and did the readings, and I tried to do the responses as best I could, either in English or what little Italian I have managed to learn.

When the time came for Holy Communion, I was ready to make my move; the priest consumed the host and drank from the chalice. But he made no move, and no attempt to distribute the Sacrament to the (very small) congregation.

Looking back, my opinion is that with the numbers of tourists who pass in and out, it has probably happened that people who are not Catholics have been receiving Communion. So better safe than sorry.

But it all reminded me of the gift to us of the Priesthood.

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