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Private Mass restrictions come into force at St. Peter’s Basilica

An empty St. Peter's Basilica An empty St. Peter's Basilica/ Vatican Media

The restriction of private Masses in the upper side chapels of St. Peter’s Basilica went into force Monday.

The basilica was quiet on March 22 without the usual murmur of prayers in many languages being offered to God in the sacrifice of the Mass at the tombs of saints.

A person entering the basilica at 8:30 a.m. would not have seen any Masses taking place in the empty side chapels.

The only official Mass scheduled at that time occurred out of sight behind a curtain behind a barricade. Only eight people were present at the Mass offered in Italian by one priest ad orientem without any hymns.

St Peter's Basilica pictured on March 22, 2021, as restrictions on private Masses came into force / Courtney Mares

St Peter's Basilica pictured on March 22, 2021, as restrictions on private Masses came into force / Courtney Mares

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A sign on the door of St. Peter’s Basilica lists four official daily Masses --- all in Italian -- taking place in the upper basilica at 8:30, 10:00, 11:00, and 5 p.m. during the month of March. A security guard told CNA that Masses also took place on March 22 at 7 a.m. in the Chapel of the Choir and at 9 a.m. at the Altar of the Chair.

Mass restrictions come into force at St Peter's Basilica on March 22, 2021 / Courtney Mares

Mass restrictions come into force at St Peter's Basilica on March 22, 2021 / Courtney Mares

The basilica appeared more like a silent museum where the art above the altars can be viewed, but the altars themselves are left unused for their intended purpose.

Security guards chatted and watched as maintenance workers ascended up on an aerial lift above the bronze statue of the apostle St. Peter, the first pope, for whom the basilica is dedicated.

St Peter's Basilica on March 22, 2021, the day private Mass restrictions came into force / Courtney Mares

St Peter's Basilica on March 22, 2021, the day private Mass restrictions came into force / Courtney Mares

Until now, the 45 altars and 11 chapels in St. Peter's Basilica have been used every morning by priests to celebrate their daily Mass. Many of them are Vatican officials who begin their day with the celebration.

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At 8:15 a.m. on March 18, four days before the suppression of private Masses in the upper basilica went into effect, a Mass could be seen taking place at nearly every chapel in the upper basilica and more Masses were offered below in the crypt chapels surrounding the archaeological excavation of the tomb containing relics of St. Peter.

The restriction of private Masses in the upper part of St. Peter’s Basilica came about in an unusual fashion ten days ago.

A letter from the Vatican Secretariat of State was posted to the sacristy door in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 12. The letter was not accompanied by any kind of official Vatican communication. Nor was the letter signed in full by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, who heads the First Section of the Secretariat of State, but instead included only his initials.

The letter from the Secretariat of State was not addressed to Cardinal Mauro Gambetti -- the new archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, appointed by Pope Francis on February 20 -- but to Archbishop Mario Giordana, extraordinary commissioner of the Fabric of St. Peter.

This is unusual, since the Fabric of St. Peter does not deal with liturgical celebrations in the Basilica, but is instead charged with its conservation and maintenance.

The fact that the letter was released by the First Section of the Secretariat of State has also garnered attention, as the first section is a sort of Ministry of Internal Affairs, in charge of all the Curia offices' direction and coordination, but typically not liturgical celebrations.

These anomalies prompted some speculation that the letter might have been a forgery. However, two Vatican officials who asked for anonymity confirmed to CNA on March 12 that the document was real and its directives were enforced beginning March 22, as the letter instructed.

The letter stressed that Lent is a time to focus on the Word of God and celebration of the Eucharist. It stated that the changes are intended to ensure “the Holy Masses in St. Peter's Basilica take place in a climate of recollection and liturgical decency.”

Under the new measures, all priests will be able to concelebrate in the official scheduled Masses. The measures also ask that the Masses have lectors and cantors.

On the feast day of a saint whose relics are in the basilica, such as the altar at the tomb of St. John Paul II, one of the Masses can be celebrated at the altar dedicated to that saint.

Another change - Mass offered in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite will be limited to the Clementine Chapel in the Vatican Grotto.

Pope Francis has often said that the Catholic faith is not a thing of the past, like an artifact in a museum, rather it is kept alive through continuous personal encounters with Christ.

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“There is always a danger that can dim the light of faith, and that is the temptation to reduce it to something from the past, something important but belonging to another age, as if the faith were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum,” the pope said in a homily on June 25, 2016.

“Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all,” the pope said. “Faith, however, is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives. We would do well to renew this living encounter with the Lord each day.”

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