If you visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the first thing that you will notice is the sheer magnitude of the structure. The second thing you might notice is the number of side altars. The entire perimeter of this massive basilica is lined with side altars and side chapels. If you visit St. Peter’s during the day time hours, there will be swarms of people filling those side chapels, most taking pictures and acting as tourists.
If, however, you visit in the early morning, you will get to see a very different St. Peter’s.
When we were in Rome, a priest friend of ours offered to say Mass for our family at one of the little side altars of St. Peter’s. He asked us to meet him just after 7:00 a.m. I was surprised that he suggested such an early time, but when we arrived in St. Peter’s square, I understood why. It was quiet and peaceful. A few early morning tourist groups were trickling in through the security line, but there were no crowds.
Once in St. Peter’s our friend (and another friend, who was newly ordained) vested in the sacristy and then led us to the altar of St. Leo the Great. As they led us through St. Peter’s, we saw priests offering Masses throughout the church. Almost every side altar was occupied by a praying priest, with a handful of faithful standing or kneeling at the altar rail.
Each of these side altars is magnificent. Each is carved of marble, and each has a saint entombed beneath. Above each altar is a towering painting, mosaic, or marble carving depicting a saint or scriptural figure. Above the altar of St. Leo, you see this pope of the early church pointing to the cross in opposition to the pagan gods. His look is one of gentle pleading, in opposition to the terrifying sight of the pagan gods.
There are no chairs or pews at the side altars, and so — like the faithful at the altars we had passed — we stood at the altar rail with a few other lay persons.
A few years ago, our home parish re-installed the altar rail. It was a restoration project undertaken by our previous pastor, and it involved literally knocking on doors in the neighborhood to retrieve the pieces of the altar rail that had been relegated to the basements of the neighborhood. It is simple but beautiful, made of ironwork and polished wood. Our current pastor used it for First Communions last year, and it was beautiful to see my oldest child kneel there to receive Jesus for the first time.
In a homily once, our current pastor had shared how this altar rail was the people’s altar. It was not meant to keep out the laity, but rather to be the altar where we pray and offer our own sacrifices.
I had been pondering that idea ever since, but I didn’t fully understand it until I was praying at the altar rail of the altar of St. Leo the Great.
Our home parish in the United States has a beautiful main altar, but this altar rail could easily rival it. It was made of marble, with beautiful carved pillars. Standing at it, looking up at the altar, I felt dwarfed — like a little child at the feet of Christ. Kneeling at it, I felt the magnitude of my own sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice for me to be kneeling at that altar. As someone who has suffered from anxiety my whole life, I was literally terrified of traveling overseas. I had spent nearly a year anticipated this trip to Italy, with some excitement and with a lot of fear. I had spent nearly ten hours on a plane with a toddler the previous day, and that same little toddler was nestled in a carrier on my chest (sleeping off jet lag) as I knelt there. I was tired. I was overwhelmed. I was facing my fears. And my exhaustion, my intense anxiety, and even the weight of my toddler were all part of my sacrifice that day.
We are always called to unite our own sacrifices to the priest’s sacrifice on the altar, but it wasn’t until I knelt at that stately altar rail that I realized the incredible dignity of my sacrifice. Further affirming the unity between myself and my priest friends at the main altar was the fact that they were praying ad orientem (facing the altar) because of the set-up of the side altars in St. Peter’s. We were facing the same direction. They were praying. I was praying. They were offering Christ’s perfect sacrifice, and I was offering mine.
I had imagined that standing and kneeling at the altar rail for an entire Mass would make me feel little and insignificant. I had imagined that it would make unimportant and unworthy. The exact opposite was true. I prayed at that Mass as I never have before. The altar rail showed me the significance of my sacrifice, and the unity between mine and Christ’s.
Now, back in our lowly but beautiful Midwest parish, I am reminded of that altar rail. When my little girls and I make a midday visit to Jesus, I invite them to kneel with me at our altar rail. “This is for us,” I tell them. “This isn’t the place where the priest goes to pray. This is the special place where we go to pray. This is our altar.”