Liturgical Reform Comes to St Peter’s Basilica

Personnel movements in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; A new papal MC on the horizon; And now a little noticed interview carried by Vatican News about the upcoming reform of the liturgical life of the Petrine Basilica recently put under the oversight of the former General Custos of the Sacred Convent of Saint Francis in Assisi, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti O.F.M. Conv. The interview follows below…

Alessandro De Carolis – Città del Vaticano (Translated by James Hadley – edited for clarity)

Gambetti: we are studying new ways and languages ​​to interact with those who come to St. Peter’s.

The Franciscan cardinal explains the reform process initiated by the Pope with the transitional norms launched last August: The Chapter and Fabric of St. Peter’s will be better distinguished according to roles and duties, including relaunching the liturgical life of the Basilica, and projects for the protection of the monumental complex.

An ancient institution is rethinking its future.  Francis took the first step just under a month ago, on August 28, by redesigning the profile of the Chapter of St. Peter’s, founded in 1053, in order to take care of the liturgical and prayer life inside the Vatican Basilica – a task that became intertwined, centuries later, with the Fabric of St. Peter’s, which came into existence to oversee the construction of the new mother house of Catholicism. And it is precisely in order to meet the new spiritual needs of visitors, first and foremost those of pilgrims, but also of simple tourists, who have resumed filling the Petrine naves, that the Pope has started the process of reform of the Chapter issuing recent transitional norms. Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, arch-priest of St. Peter’s Basilica and president of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, sat down with Vatican News to explain the direction of reform initiated by Francis.

Your Eminence, what do you want to achieve with this reorganization with respect to the past, which in the case of this institution is a truly ancient past?

This ancient and glorious past is now pointed to a renewal that can help sustain this institution into the future, and above all, it is hoped, to continue to bear the fruits of the Spirit today. The aim is to gradually restructure the constitution of the Chapter and its work so that it can increasingly meet the new questions of the faithful, of visitors, while trying to offer a message that can bring people as close as possible to the sacredness of the place, to the meanings it holds, and that can grow and develop in visitors an attraction to beauty, the beauty of the liturgy above all, but also of art. 

What are the new questions the visitor brings?

The perception is, that alongside the traditional question of how one approaches a sacred place and those persons buried within – we have many saints here in the Basilica, many Popes starting from St. Peter – and the subsequent desire to approach the sacraments, there is a growing question, albeit not yet well defined, of spirituality. By this I mean, the rediscovery of ‘interiority’, but in a different way than in the past. It seems to me that there are a large number of people visiting here, but not only here, who are rediscovering contact with the transcendent, re-savoring it, even if they may not know how to give a name or a definite form to this need. These people need to be directed in a certain way, to see that somewhere there is an explanation for this event. From this point of view, then, it is necessary to reshape the communication of the message, which itself obviously always remains the same. This is to say, to rethink the way in which we present the person of Jesus, and by extension all the various spiritual aspects derived from this encounter, especially as it relates to this particular place. To use a language, I would almost say a language, that can be decoded by the listener, by those who come here. Here I mean not just the various languages of visitors, but also that of art and the beauty of the place. 

So what does the answer to this question consist of from a purely spiritual point of view?

We are currently reevaluating the celebration of the Eucharist and the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, such as Lauds and Vespers, which are, since its very foundation, the responsibility of the Chapter of the Basilica. The first element we are looking at concerns the language of celebrations. Given that we are an ‘international’ location, a single language is impossible. Therefore we are thinking about how to use language during celebrations so as to favor the people participating and obtain an ‘understandability’ that touches the heart. Secondly, we are rethinking the daily structure of prayer in the basilica, from the Eucharist to personal prayer. We would like to enrich the prayer of the Chapter and make it accessible to people who come to visit. And while in the Basilica there is already permanent adoration in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, nothing prevents other moments of adoration from being proposed, in other limited moments of the day or evening. We are thinking as well to propose some sort of lectio that tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of Peter’s faith. Furthermore, when the weather allows, we are thinking of taking our prayer into the square. This in fact was already done during the Great Jubilee of 2000 when events for pilgrims were held outside.

The Chapter of St. Peter’s has in history gradually become responsible for the administration and care of the Basilica. How does the reform desired by the Pope intervene in this particular area?

It intervenes by distinguishing activities more clearly. There is the liturgical and pastoral work of the Basilica that is the proper spiritual competence of the Chapter – that is the canons of the Chapter. And then there is the administrative work that will be overseen by the heads of the Chapter, but which in part is to be assumed by the Fabric of St Peter’s. The basic idea is to coordinate the areas of activity, but distinguish them better. The Fabric of St Peter’s, as the term itself says, is to “manufacture”, therefore to preserve, to guard. While the Fabric sees to the physical protection of this heritage, it is also to carry out activities that favor its conservation agenda. At the same time the Chapter retains some assets that have built up over time and form part of the patrimony of St Peter’s, but do not require particularly demanding management. These assets will remain in the competence of the Chapter as it allows us to carry out charitable works, in particular to aide those in need, for example, priests who are in difficulty, or to assist other charities. If resources allow it, the idea is to resume, as the Chapter did in the past, the promotion of worship in other churches outside of Rome in Italy, but also around the world. In this sense, one of the things that struck me in the past concerns the coronation of the Madonnas. In the past the Chapter sent a contribution to the churches that wished to crown paintings, icons, or Marian statues. 

So, as far as the Fabric is concerned, how will it perform its function?

The priority of the Fabric will be to invest the resources available to make the basilica complex ever safer, more beautiful and more orderly. But one of the things we are starting to think about is that it would be nice to also promote a training school in the arts and crafts, which would give young people the opportunity to learn and maybe participate in some conservation effort or new project. Among other reasons, just thinking about some trades, we can’t let them die out as they are essential for the sake of preserving the basilica: for example the stonemason, the mosaicist, or the specialist carpenter – those able to give the right curvature with their hands, to trace the useful profile, which are often unique and cannot be industrially produced. We would like to support this initiative, so it will be one area of common reflection when the Chapter of Canons has been reconfigured. 

In this regard, how will the composition of the Chapter change?

The new norms foresee that many Canons will become Honorary Canons, based on age, and tasks that can or cannot be carried out. Because of this change the Pope wanted utmost attention given to the transition by means of accompanying the personal situations of Canons so that no one finds himself in difficulty. 


  1. A language that can be used for common worship by Catholics from all over the world?
    Can’t think of one. Mass in Esperanto, perhaps?

    1. Hahahaha.
      Although as point of fact, there probably *are* more Catholic lay people who speak Esparanto in daily life than do Latin.

      1. On the other hand, courtesy of Vatican II’s permission to use the vernacular in the liturgy, there probably more Catholic lay people who know the vernacular translation of their “parts” of the Ordo Missae in Latin than do Esperanto.

      2. Well we sure as heck don’t speak Italian! In an ethnic group where fewer than 5% go to Mass regularly they would be better off using an international language spoken by the tourists who fill the church.

      3. Update I meant closer to 17% of Italians. That is much the same as Argentines during Archbishop Bergoglio’s tenure. Still it is difficult to use a vernacular language when most at St. Peter’s are international. Hard to change if that is the intention.

  2. Rote memorization of a “part” is not the same as speaking a language. Esperanto speakers…know their language! Can Latin memorizers reserve a table and order from a menu? Oh, wait, there are no menus in Latin! No need! (well ditto Esperanto! still, the point holds.)
    As it turns out, I’m just now reading Dante’s defense of the vernacular in general and in his own works. Here’s John Took commenting: “to speak of the vernacular…as comparable to Latin in point of beauty and expressive power, and indeed as a successor to Latin in the area of high cultural discourse, is in one and the same breath to speak of its status as the in-and-through which of properly human being and becoming…Individuals and group. (i.e. nations) affirm themselves thereby in the twofold integrity and intelligibility of their properly human presence in the world.”

    Nobody ever said, ‘Gee, the Divine Comedy would have been a good poem if only Dante had written it in Latin”.

    1. there are plenty of people who speak fluent Latin, this person who is 35 and is fluent himself estimates around 20,000 in the world who are like him. Here is him seeing how good Catholic priests are at it in the Vatican:

    2. There is an ATM machine set into the wall of the left hand side of St Peter’s, in an area normally only accessible with a pass, where the default language is Latin. (You can change it to Italian or English.)

  3. I suppose that the elephant in the room is that English is the most spoken language by visitors to St. Peter’s. Yes the locals speak Italian, as would most who work in Rome. But English is the language of the visitor. There might be room for other languages, such as Spanish or maybe French or German, or some none-European languages. But today if people speak a second language it is more than likely to be English. I remember Benedict XVI at WYD in Madrid doing the common parts of the Mass in Latin as he wanted to connect with the youth. Some youth do understand a little Latin, but the youth of Europe today overwhelmingly speak English as their common language. So IMHO English needs to be used more in St. Peter’s than having the odd confession box with a UK flag outside it!

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