24 March 2013

LIFE: Palms @ the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy - It’s long been a custom of Christians to decorate their churches with palm leaves, and to carry them during the rite of consecration on Palm Sunday. It is reminiscent of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, six days before his passion when he was received by a crowd of simple people holding palms and olive branches as symbols of joy and peace. 

 Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican
Today, Palm Sunday, that passage is rememberd. Two thousand hand woven palms from the Ligurian towns of Bordighera and San Remo will be blessed and distributed free to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. One hundred palms have already been offered to the Cardinals, and the largest palm will be carried by the Pope.

The palms are a gift from the two Ligurian cities and are part of a long tradition which, according to local lore, began back in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Eyptian obelisk had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligola in the year 37 B.C. He wanted it moved from its location in Caligola’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square. St. Peter’s Cathedral had been built over the ruins of the Circus, and the obelisk stood in the middle of what was to be his race track.   

Catdinals Carrying Palms
Sixtus V put engineer Domenico Fontana in charge of the operation. Solid foundations were built to support the heavy structure and on April 30, 1586 the operation began. The installation date was set for September 10, 1586 and on that day hundreds of Romans gathered in the square. They were there to watch 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches transport and erect the 350 ton monument.  

Fontana told the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence was needed to raise the obelisk, once it was in the square. He said even the slightest sound could distract the workers and result in a disaster.The Pope turned to the crowd that had assembled to watch the maneuver and said that anyone who spoke, or made any noise during the delicate and risky operation would face the death penalty.  
The Key Word is Patience
As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding the obelisk began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously. Everyone held their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were starting to fray and that they were at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in danger of crashing to the ground.

It was then that a ship’s captain from the town of Bordighera, Benedetto Bresca, broke silence and cried out – Aiga ae corde! (Put water on the ropes!) The chief engineer realized the sailor was right and the ropes were doused with water. They became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised, without further danger to anyone.  Six days later it was placed on the base and on September 26 it was blessed and consecrated.

Not as Easy as it Looks
In spite of the Pope’s demand for silence, the Captain wasn’t punished for his outburst; instead he was praised. As a reward, the Pope asked him what he would like and Giovanni Bresca said that he would like that his town of Bordighera be permitted to provide Ligurian palms to the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.

It’s been more than four centuries that the city of Sanremo and Bordighera have been part of the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday.  It’s an honor they have carried proudly. For the ceremony the palms, known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures, some only inches high, others several meters high. 
Palms for Sale in the Markets Throughout Italy 
There are those who claim the story of Benedetto Bresca is pure fiction, but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo have had exclusive rights to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.  

The palm and the cross continue to be Christian symbols seen in churches during Holy Week. Today many churches save the palms from their Palm Sunday services and burn them the following year as the source of ashes for Ash Wednesday. The Catholic Church considers the blessed palms to be sacramentals and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion. 


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