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Witnessing Catholic Pageantry

Rome , Italy

Regardless of your faith, encountering the splendid ceremony of the Catholic Church can be one of the most memorable events on a trip to Rome. Given the Vatican’s busy calendar of beatifications, canonizations, and regular Catholic holidays, it’s not hard to stumble upon a procession of chanting, thurible-swinging priests in full regalia. Certain holidays have a Hollywood quality, like Good Friday, when the pope delivers his stations of the cross service at the hauntingly-lit Colosseum, or Pentecost, when firemen climb to the top of the Pantheon and pour barrels of red rose petals through the oculus over the congregation below. Sometimes you can even get a souvenir of Catholic showmanship: hang around St. Peter’s Square in early February when they take down the Vatican Christmas tree, and you might walk home with a giant glass ornament. For a more ephemeral experience, go to any active church in Rome on a Sunday night as mass is letting out, stand in the back of the basilica, and inhale the candle smoke and incense. To see where Rome’s holy men and women obtain their amazing Technicolor-like ceremonial garb, window-shop the liturgical outfitters on Via dei Cestari near the Pantheon.

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