Some Ancient Papal Ceremonial as Described by H.V. Morton

One of the pioneering travel writers of the twentieth century was H.V. Morton. Morton wrote a significant number of travel works centred in England, Italy, and the Holy Land. In one of those books, In the Steps of St. Paul, Morton provides a rather "atmospheric" account of some of the papal ceremonies that he witnessed during the reign of Pope Pius XI. His description provides a nice glimpse into the profound symbolic richness of those ceremonies and it seemed a good opportunity to share those with our readers in appreciation of the richness of traditional papal ceremonial.
I obtained a ticket for the Pontifical High Mass in St. Peter's. Pope Pius XI, no longer “the Prisoner of the Vatican,” was to make his first public appearance. The snow had turned to rain. Early in the morning, and in full evening dress, I went to St. Peter’s, and never have hours passed so easily, as I sat watching the crowds that swiftly filled the gigantic building. The Vatican Guard patrolled the aisles of the church. They wore bearskins, white doeskin breeches and black thigh-boots and, as their spurs rang on the marble floor, I thought that they might be a squadron that had strayed from history at the time of Napoleon.

The Swiss Guard was on duty round the Baldacchino, which rises above the tomb of St. Peter. They wore their full-dress uniform, which is said to have been designed by MichaelAngelo: steel casques, doublets and hose slashed with stripes of red, yellow and blue. Each guardsman grasped a pike. And, as the hours passed, Vatican officials, who might have stepped from the canvasses of El Greco, came softly down the nave to show distinguished visitors to their seats, their pointed white beards lying against starched ruffs, swords slanting against black satin breeches.

Words of command rang out suddenly from some distant archway. Troops all over the church stood to attention with a ring of pikes and spurs. Then through St. Peter’s rang a fanfare of silver trumpets at the sound of which, to my amazement, the thousands of men and women rose to their feet and began to cheer.

I looked down the nave towards the great west doors, and I saw what seemed to be the splendour and chivalry of the Middle Ages coming in slow procession up the church. I saw the burnished casques of the Swiss Guards moving slowly above the heads of the standing people. I saw the Papal Bodyguard, carrying drawn swords and wearing scarlet tunics and helmets from whose crests hung long plumes of black horsehair. I saw members of the Vatican Chapter walking two by two, representatives of every Catholic order, and many a monk walking in a brown habit. When the cheering died down and there was a second or two of silence, I could hear the steady tramp and the ring of spurs on marble.

As the procession came at funeral pace up the nave, the great church, lit hitherto by the pale daylight, blazed suddenly with countless lights; and the trumpets ceased their fanfare. The sound of a solemn march now filled St. Peter’s, and I saw Pope Pius XI far off at the east end of the church, seated in the state palanquin, the sedia gestatoria, clothed in white. There was a jewelled tiara on his head, and he sat motionless, except when he slowly raised his hand to trace the sign of the Cross in the air.

Two flabella, great fans of ostrich feathers, moved slowly above the Pope’s head, and they reminded me of Constantinople and of the Byzantine emperors, and of the time when the representative of St. Peter ruled the church of Eastern Christendom. There was not one meaningless thing in all this rich display. There was not one piece of embroidery that had not been pinned in position by Time. All the centuries had combined to make this progress of the Pope. St. Peter’s was suffocating with its memories. I could not understand how people could find breath to cheer and shout their ‘Vivas.” The centuries had flooded the church to the roof, and in that flood the imagination struggled like a drowning man.

People all round me were cheering, but my throat was dry, and I do not think I could have cheered to save my life. Strangely, perhaps, I was not aware of any emotional appeal in the sight before me: the appeal was purely to the mind and imagination. There was an elderly man in white, borne shoulder-high in a chair that trembled slightly as it advanced, but I was looking not at one man or at one Pope: I was looking at all history and at all popes. It seemed to me that everything else in the world was young. I had seen the oldest living thing in the world: I had seen the visible expression of a corporate memory that goes back into the very beginning of the Christian Age.

The great chair was lowered from the shoulders of the bearers. The white figure stepped from it and walked to a white throne under a scarlet canopy. One by one the Cardinals appreached and kissed his ring. High voices sounded from the Sistine Chapel, and the Pope rose and knelt before the altar. . . . It was a moment I cannot describe. I saw a line of men kneeling into the dim perspective of the past, and the first in the long line was St. Peter.

“Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram cedificabo ecclesiam meam."

-- In the Steps of St. Paul, p. 445-448
Pope Pius XII in this particular image

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