LIFE IN ITALY: THE FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
As I write this column, there’s been an almost unreal silence outside today – except for intermittent periods of pounding rain! It’s unreal for Rome whose chaotic traffic and honking horns, if nothing else, can cause untenable noise pollution. To enjoy silence, most Romans look forward to Sundays, holidays and the months of July and August when people go away on vacation.
It is so quiet because today is a big holiday in Italy and the Vatican – November 1, the feast of All Saints. The Vatican also observes November 2 – All Souls Day – as a day off, a day that used to be an Italian holiday but has been removed from the calendar of public holidays. Not that that makes much difference to Italians who use any excuse to create what they call a “ponte,” a bridge to an extra long weekend. Thus, given that today, Thursday, is a holiday, a number of Italians may ask for Thursday and Friday off, creating a four-day weekend.
Vatican personnel generally work Saturdays but a few people will ask for Thursday, Friday and Saturday and also have a four-day weekend!
Today at noon, as he usually does on Sundays and solemnities, Pope Francis recited the Angelus with the faithful and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He urged Christians “to seek holiness not by accomplishing extraordinary things but by following the path of the Beatitudes without half measures in everyday life.” (photo vaticannews)
The Holy Father said we are united not only with the saints of the calendar but also with our “next door” saints – our relatives and acquaintances who are now part of that immense multitude. Hence, the Pope said, “All Saints Day is a family feast, because the saints, our truest brothers and sisters, love us, know what is our true good, help us, await us and want us to be happy with them in heaven.”
The Beatitudes, he noted, are contrary to the way of the world. “The Gospel says blessed are the poor, while the world says blessed are the rich. The Gospel says blessed are the meek, while the world says blessed are the proud. The Gospel says blessed are the pure, while the world says blessed are the sly and pleasure seekers.”
Francis reminded the pilgrims that tomorrow, November 2, All Souls Day, he would be visiting the Laurentino Cemetery, and invited them “to accompany me with prayers on this day of supplication for those who have preceded us in the sign of faith and sleep the sleep of peace.”
It is tradition at the Vatican for Popes on November 1 to celebrate Holy Mass for the Solemnity of All Saints at a Rome cemetery, for many years Campo Verano, and, on the following day, November 2, to lead a prayer service in the Vatican Grottoes for all deceased Popes. This year, however, Francis changed the dates a bit; Mass at the Laurentino is tomorrow, and on November 3 he will lead the prayer service for deceased Popes.
Last year on November 2, All Souls Day, Pope Francis visited the American military cemetery in Nettuno, south of Rome, There, at 3:15 in the afternoon, he celebrated Mass for all war dead, marking the annual Catholic tradition of mourning the departed, and left white roses on a number of grave markers.
November 1 – the feast of All Saints – is such an important day for Italians that newspapers – and now social media and websites – publish special inserts on how to get to a city’s cemeteries, where to park cars, what shuttle buses are available within cemeteries, etc. Cemetery hours – usually longer in the October 29 to November 5 period – are posted, as are the hours and routes of the “C” busses (“C” for cimitero or cemetery). In Rome there are 12 cemeteries and each one has special rules and regulations and opening hours. The larger ones will also have free shuttles buses (because no cars will be allowed) to take people to the graves of loved ones. In Rome’s largest cemetery, Verano, 16 stops have been programmed for these buses.
One million people are expected to visit Rome’s cemeteries in the weeklong period dedicated to the deceased. The city always make a concerted effort at this time of year to clean cemeteries of trash, to repair walkways and even headstones and to do some serious gardening. Visitors too will clean tombs, bring fresh flowers and entire families will meet to mourn their dearly departed as well as to celebrate their lives. And then family members will usually all go out for lunch or dinner, sometimes even taking a picnic lunch along (though not for eating in the cemeteries – even though that is what the very first Christians did when they gathered at burial grounds or in the catacombs).
One Rome paper a few years back even published a survey on the cost of funerals, saying “there is some meager consolation for those in mourning in the capital of Rome because a funeral there costs the least” of all cities questioned for the survey. They run about $2,750 in Rome, and, on the high end, cost $4,560 in Milan with Turin and Genoa somewhere in between. These prices include a walnut coffin with zinc interior, flowers, the burial and documents. However, says the paper, the best bargain is still a funeral paid for by the city, with Turin being the best buy at 660 Euro or $844, and Genoa being the costliest at 2,000 Euro or $2,560.
I’m guessing prices have changed significantly since those numbers were published.
Prices for flowers greatly increase at this time of year and I learned a hard lesson my first year in Rome.
It was the very end of October and I went to a private clinic to visit a friend who had just had serious surgery. I wanted to bring Lina an impressive bouquet of flowers to cheer her up but my budget did not allow for “impressive.” So I did the best I could. I bought about 8 or 10 chrysanthemums – being bigger flowers, they seemed more impressive as a bouquet. Surely just the thing to bring a smile to Lina’s face!
Well, I knew the minute I walked into the room that something was wrong. I saw a strange look on Lina’s face (and also on the face of a cousin visiting her, a priest), but never for a minute did I associate it with the flowers. We chatted and visited and faces seemed to brighten up, so I dismissed the first impression I had received that something was wrong.
Only much later did I learn that chrysanthemums are viewed by Italians as the flower of the dead and are the flowers that most people bring to place on the graves of their loved ones! Fortunately for me, Lina and Fr. John were wonderful, understanding friends who gently, some time later, told me what bringing chrysanthemums to someone in the hospital just days before the feast of All Saints is just not done! (Actually they seem to frown on flowers in hospitals at other times of the year as well.)
Like other hard-learned lessons in Italy, this was one mistake I never repeated.
Today, but especially tomorrow, Italians visit cemeteries in huge numbers, cleaning the graves of their loved ones and bringing votive candles as well as armloads of flowers, especially chrysanthemums. The price of flowers goes up steeply twice a year – on November 1 and 2 and on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that day in Rome people bring flowers to the Piazza di Spagna, Rome’s celebrated Spanish Steps, placing them at the base of the column with the statue of Mary or on a table near the column. The loose flowers are then woven by priests and brothers into large bouquets or wreaths and placed near or on the column.