A Rare Account of Mass in the Sistine Chapel

The chanting of the Dies Irae

Below is an article taken from a radio broadcast by Helen Coghill S. Haskin, an American radio lecturer in the 1930s best remembered for her soft, contralto voice. I believe she was a member of the Episcopal Church. The account is taken from The Crusader's Almanac, printed in the year 1937. 

This account gives a rare glimpse of the old papal Masses that were held on occasion in the Sistine Chapel, always in the morning, and always unbelievably packed. Guests with coveted ticket showed up at the Bronze Portal and walked up the stately Scala Regia to the Sala Regia, the room that leads to the Sistine Chapel. There they would enter the chapel to experience some of the most beautiful and artistic liturgies known to man. 

This praiseworthy tradition of Masses in the Sistine Chapel came to an end in the late sixties when the Papal Chapel was unfortunately dissolved in a fit of modernization. In those days the Sistine Chapel was still maintained as a chapel, a house of prayer (a liturgical space), and not primarily as a museum. The Masses were ticketed events where precious few could attend, a once-in-a-lifetime experience never to be forgotten. 

"At the Vatican, during the month of November, a solemn Mass of Requiem is celebrated in the Sistine Chapel. This Mass is for the deceased Cardinals.

Promptly at ten, motors begin to arrive at the Bronze Doors under the Bernini Collonade on the right of the Vatican. The great doors have been likened to the frontiers of a kingdom rather than the portals of a place. Here the Swiss Guard in the medieval costume of red, blue and yellow, said to have been designed by Michael Angelo, is always on duty. The origin of these guards dates back to Pope Sixtus IV, in 1476, who sent a mission to Basle to arrange this alliance with the Swiss.

The crowd begins to move slowly up the long marble stairs - the Scala Regina or Royal Stairs. This leads to the long hall where the assemblage waits. On the right of the entrance to the Sistine Chapel stands a double row of the Palatine Guard. This body is recruited from Roman families of the middle class, and is not so often seen in the Vatican as the other corps, but always lines the route of the Pontifical Processions in St. Peter's on the days of great functions. 

On each side of the Chapel door stands the Pontifical Gendarmeria, who, as the name implies, perform police duty at the Vatican. Here and there among the crowd are members of the Noble Guard. They were organized by Pope Pius VII on his return from France, where he restored the Pontifical Court. These men belong to the old Roman and Italian nobility. Their duties consist of furnishing a guard of honor in the Pope's apartments and escorting him on great ceremonial occasions.

The Scala Regia seems a page torn from medieval history. A riot of gorgeous color. As each foreign minister of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Vatican arrives, a sharp order to present arms is given. The Palatine Guard stands at attention. One by one, the gorgeously uniformed representatives from nearby all the countries of the world, some with their wives - lace-veiled ladies in black - move across this medieval canvas, and on through the Chapel door. 

The Honorary Gentlemen-in-Waiting, of the Spada and Cappa (Sword and Cape) - costumed in black velvet, with white ruffs - lend a somber contrast to the mass of color. Then another order to present arms: the Cardinals of the Sacred College - winding like a great ribbon of crimson across the Hall. Immediately following comes the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, attired in the black velvet of the Order, with a huge Maltese Cross in front. This famous Order is said to have existed before the Crusades, known as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1309 they were called the Knights of Rhodes, and since 1530 they have borne the name of the Knights of Malta. Admission to this Order is subject to numerous conditions, including ancient nobility or corresponding social position. The Order is noted for its charity and benevolence. A number of American gentlemen are included in its membership. 

Then come their Excellencies, the Patriarch of Alexandria and Patriarch of Antioch of the Latins. Following a number of Bishops and Archbishops, Monsignori, representatives of the various Colleges, Superiors of many Religious Orders, the Consistorial lawyers, members of the Roman aristocracy. Finally the Chapel is filled to capacity, and the doors are closed.

The Sistine Chapel is so called from Pope Sixtus IV, by whose order it was erected in 1472. Its dimensions are 133 feet by 45 feet. There are six windows, high up on each side.

The famous 'Last Judgment' above the Altar was finished in 1541, after having occupied Michael Angelo for seven years. The Saviour is in the center, in the Act of Judgement. At His right is the Blessed Virgin Mary, and around are Saints and Martyrs bearing the instruments of their sufferings.

In the Sistine Chapel there falls a great hush. From the high-vaulted windows the morning sunlight lies full across the painting of the Final Judgment. Six tall candles light the Altar, which is without other adornment except for the large Crucifix. At the left, the Papal Throne beneath a canopy. 

A door opens - His Holiness the Pope! Attired in cope and white mitre, he enters. Kneeling a short time in prayer the Holy Father rises and begins to recite the prayers with the Celebrant of the Mass. After, he moves slowly to the Throne. 

The musical liturgy is sung by the Sistine Choir. The beautiful voices seem to drift down in spirals of melody from the balcony high above. 

The Pope follows the Mass at the Papal Throne, kneeling at the Faldstool from the Elevation until after the Communion.

The Elevation is the most solemn moment of the Mass. Holding the Host, the Celebrant pronounces the words of Consecration: 'Hoc est enim Corpus Meum' - 'For this is my body.' The Swiss Guards drop to their knees - hands to helmets - in salute to the Unseen King of Kings! The Pope kneels - as does every soul in the Sistine Chapel.

Sunlight rests on the kneeling throng with prismatic coloring. Incense make an aureole of haze. The silence is so deep, one might hear a shadow pass. Another moment and the scene has changed. 

The music from the incomparable choir begins again. Then, the to-all-familiar 'Pater Noster' - 'Our Father', and the Mass draws toward its end.

The Pope is in good physical condition. Somewhat above medium height, of athletic build, with brown hair and fair complexion. His is a cameo-like profile. His manner is marked by the restraint and gravity that are inseparable from his great office, but behind his lips there seems to lurk a smile of kindliness and sympathy. 

The Pope leaves the Sistine Chapel by the door through which he came. Swiss Guards line the aisle, and again the great pageant of pomp and color passes. Teh medieval picture fades. Once again we are enveloped by the Modern World."


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