Monday, November 17

The Heralds of the Gospel

I wasn’t initially sure why I’d gotten the invitation, or exactly what was going on. My friend S. had gotten some from a nun and had passed one on to me a few weeks earlier while I was at my desk in studio. It certainly looked striking enough, an oversized parchment-colored ticket with the intricate gold and scarlet mandorla-shaped insignia of an organization that called itself in neat blue-inked italics the Araldi del Vangelo, the Heralds of the Gospel. Presumably some local little sodality, I thought. Understatement of the month.

Gli Araldi del Vangelo sono lieti di invitare la Signoria Vostra e I familiari alla Solenne Ceremonia in omaggio al Cuore Immacolato di Maria.

I could decypher that esily enough, as well as the date and place, the pontifical parish of San Gioacchino in Prati. Then this evening, just as I was thinking about dinner, I realized that lunedì 17 novembre p.v. was today, and alle ore 19:30 was less than an hour away.

So, I puzzled out the location of San Gioacchino, knotted my tie and hurried across the Tiber towards the looming silhouette of Castel Sant’ Angelo. The cupola of St. Peter’s was ringed with golden-orange floodlights, the dome glowing a subterranean silvery-green. San Gioacchino stood some ways north of the old fortress, and after skirting the moated park that ringed the Castel, I finally came across the church. Its high dome, pierced with lit windows, seemed like a heaven full of stars outlined against the purple night.

The façade was covered in a tangle of scaffolding and gauzy tarps, and I glimpsed the vague figures of a monk and a nun maneuvering a little table into place in the vestibule. I came closer, my eyes narrowing in puzzlement. I saw the gleam of polished high cavalry boots, a huge embroidered crusader cross. He wasn’t a friar—he was one of the Heralds. He had to be. I stood in awe at this formidable figure, bustling about with the table and setting up rosaries and enameled medals with the little nun’s assistance. But then I stepped across the threshold of the church and was dazzled beyond belief.

The church was packed. It was an immense space, almost blindingly bright with light, the vaulted nave rising high above me, rich with gilding and intricate frescoes full of chivalrous knights and holy kings. Dozens of tapers blazed on the distant high altar held in the outstretched arms of two immense marble angels swirling amid stony clouds presenting a terrestrial globe in gold and blue to the semi-Byzantine Christ above in the apse. And then there were the Heralds.

Some paced in the back, keeping order amid the crowd that overflowed out of the pews. Their splendid knightly habit was military and monastic at the same time, a knee-length white tunic and brown tabard marked with an immense scarlet and white Santiago cross, its sharp point stretching down to their polished boots. A chain girded their waist, with a great looped rosary clicking at one hip. Brass papal keys gleamed at their high military collars, peeping above long folded-back pointed hoods. And the whole sanctuary was filled with them in tiered ranks, a vast military orchestra of trumpeters, trombonists and choristers arrayed in perfect order.

Suddenly, as soon as I had entered, I heard a trumpet ring out loud and clear, and a procession of Herald drummers and supernumeraries slowly moved down the nave with perfect soldierly precision. Drums beat with heart-stopping vigor as they processed towards the narthex, and—and then the doors of the principal portal swung open. The drummers froze like guardsmen on parade, crossing their drumsticks with a sharp wooden click. There was a moment of perfect silence. Incense screened the church, and then came the image of the Virgin of Fatima, carried aloft on the shoulders of four robed Heralds. Loud, foundation-shaking cries of Evviva il Cuore di Maria! Viva! pierced the music as the Heralds slowly made their way to the altar step.

The ritual was to be a Solemn Crowning of the Virgin’s image, and it had all the splendor of the grandest of coronations.

It was amazing. It was utterly amazing. I strained and stretched to see what I could see, the richly-attired Herald bandsmen, representatives of other sodalities in white and blue cloaks in the first rank of pews, a priestly
officiant in a fringed golden cope. And then the girl choristers, delicate young lady heralds only a few years younger than myself. They stood just beyond the musicians, these innocent creatures, looking remarkably dignified in their golden-brown tunics and crusader tabards and powerful boots. Their sweet, strong faces were earnest and solemn, dark hair and auburn hair and fair hair pulled back and clubbed at the nape of the neck with matching brown ribbons and silver hair-clips. Flowers of Catholic womanhood.

The musicians played a blood-stirring rendition of a Handel piece and then came more shouts of acclamation from Heralds and people and more resonant trumpet calls and pounding martial drums. Incense rose plumelike from a swinging thurible, clouding the church with gilded smoke.

I notice a foppish young priest in the curious habit of the Oratory slide in the back, the lappets of his long black cloak swinging as he moved up one side-aisle.

Then came the Imposition of the Rosary on the image. An honor guard of Heralds moved slowly towards the sanctuary with the clockwork timing of an Arlington sentry. Behind them walked a young boy with a scarlet and white sash bearing the circlet on a cushion.

One of the assisting priests places it in the statue’s outstretched hand. A Herald steps to the podium to proclaim the Triumph of Mary, terrible as an army with banners. Then came more Handel, Let my right hand be exalted, and afterwards the choir intoned a Gregorian Veni Creator, the silvery, birdlike high sopranos of the heartbreakingly pure young ladies seeming as familiar and as innocent as the voices of the Women’s Liturgical Choir back at Notre Dame I remember hearing sing at vigil mass. Amid all the exotic pomp and martial blare, I could feel a touch of home, could feel at home.

Finally, the sacred moment had come, with majestic flourishes of brass and drums, and the choir brought forth an overpowering, bilingual Marian rendition of the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest. I was manic with excitement, my eyes swiveling wildly to record the whole glorious color-soaked scene.

And all the people rejoiced. Rejoiced. Rejoiced. Rejoiced and sang, God save the Queen, long live the Queen. May the Queen live forever. Amen. Alleluia.

The Heralds slowly lowered the sedia on which the Virgin stood, and the principal priest placed the high-arched crown atop Her effigy’s carven head. Then the Queen’s attendants lift her up on the litter as high as they could, straining with every muscle to show the new monarch to her subjects. Drums thudded and trumpets blared with bellicose fervor as the Heralds processed towards the narthex and then forward again to Her throne in the sanctuary, a flurry of crossings and genuflections sweeping the crowd. We proclaimed Her Queen of Glory, assured in victory, acclamations shouted back and forth with ritual excitement between Herald and congregation.

I think the musicians played, of all things, the Triumphal March from Aida, but my memory's a bit vague on that point. I believe the program and it says that.

Then we all recited the Consecration, pledging ourselves to Mary, and recollections of the old campus came back stronger than ever. I trip over the Italian words but remember the substance. We, my friends and I, had made the same, or similar, Consecration each fall and spring over the last two years. But it wasn’t homesickness, but a deep link, a continuity, another touch of Mary’s spreading, worldwide cloak.

The rite concluded, after a round of the Hallelujah Chorus, with the singing of the stirring Inno Pontifico, the long-ago anthem of the Papal States, full of praise for the immortal Rome of martyrs and saints. The organ thunders and the drums roll. I feel every impact of drumstick and drumhead in my marrows and eardrums, and I thank God for it. And then the long procession of Heralds and musicians, gonfaloniers, choristers and clerics files out the door right past me, and I am reminded once again of Notre Dame, the University of the Virgin, these stalwart young Catholic men and sweet, oh so sweet and devout young women.

The girls, especially, move with conscious ritual, their chests puffed out, their chins raised high, their backs ramrod straight as soldiers on parade. And their big red-leather hymnals folded beneath their arms. Their faces seem as familiar and ordinary as the faces in the dining hall, the faces in a dorm hallway, the girl who sits behind you in Geometry. Praise God for such a marvelous—such an ecstatic—such a stirring scene in praise of She Who is as terrible as an army with banners.

…Roma immortale di Martiri e di Santi,
Roma immortale accogli i nostri canti…

I wait behind as the crowd slowly begins to dissipate and watch the Heralds roll up their standards in the rear of the church, disassembling the great brass poles on which the immense banners hung. In the midst of Roma immortale a few minutes earlier, one of the Heralds had nearly lost control of his gonfalon, the sturdy metal lance wildly tipping in his hands and the serrated tails of the flag brushing off two old ladies’ chapel veils.

I watch them furl their banners, and I watch the thick crowd that envelops the central nave as votaries pay their homage to the Queen with a kiss on the image’s foot. I notice Herald friends reacquaint themselves in the side aisles, parents chat with tunicked daughters, exchanges of smiles and laughter, a bobbed head. Little fragments of other peoples’ lives slip past me in a foreign language. The Oratorian in his elegant high white collar seems to be rearranging the chairs in the sanctuary.

I watch the girl Heralds gather in little conversational knots, lovely to behold in their casual innocence. They seem more animated, human in their conversation. Their features seem more individual now despite their uniforms and identically pulled-back glossy dark hair. Some are pale and delicate, even northern and freckled, others strong-featured and olive. Straight teeth, crooked teeth, touches of charming irregularity. All seem small and lean in their magisterial garb. A pair sit in one side chapel and strike their chests in some curious penitential exercise and then go back to gossiping, eyes swiveling over the chapel’s intricately-painted vaults.

Meanwhile, the young men and the older Heralds greet one another or gawk animatedly at a lurid wax virgin-martyr displayed in the curve of a niche. One novice in a pale brown tunic, hooks a caped blue uniform cloak over his robe and looks about for parent or brothers. Two others, flanking the statue as the Queen’s guard, exchange whispered confidences behind the Virgin’s back. It is the most pleasant thing in the world to sit here and watch these young spirits.

I was distant, separated by nationality and language, but I felt close to these young people, united by an ancient faith and a common mind. I only wished I could hear it, hear those common words, those eccentric Catholic Nerd jokes or bold promises of Marian loyalty from their lips, to hear and to understand it. But there was a language between us, and so I am content to commune silently, to drink it in, and to savor this Catholic splendor before it flickers into a faded memory.

Though I get the courage to tell one of the girls “Canta bene” and she says grazie and I am willing to leave it at that.

And then I turn my attention to the Queen once again. The line of votaries is just beginning to shorten, but it’s growing even darker outside and I don’t know the neighborhood well. It looks like it will be a while. I kneel and say a brief prayer to Her and Her Son, and slip back into the evening from whence I came. I am still ecstatic with excitement at this world of knightly pledges to the real, queenly dignity of this celestial Virgin.

I am still somewhat confused as to who these modern-day knights in their boots and tabards are, whether local or worldwide, lay or professed, but nonetheless tonight I have seen enough to fill volumes. The drums still roll in my ears, and my knees are weak, my head vague with giddy excitement at the triumph of the Virgin. I take one final glance at the window-pierced dome of the lofty church as I stand out on the piazza sidewalk beyond.

It was, by far, the best evening I have spent in Rome.

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