13 April 2014

LIFE: Palm Sunday at the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy – Today is Palm Sunday. In Italy, church ladies have been selling braided palms in the local street markets this week, while others have been busy decorating their churches with palm fronds and braided palm crosses. It’s an old custom. It reminds us of the crowds that held palms and olive branches as symbols of peace and joy when they greeted Christ as he entered Jerusalem six days before his passion.  
Pope Francis and the Palms of Bordighera
In Rome’s St Peter’s Square two thousand woven palms from the Italian Riviera towns of Bordighera and San Remo will be blessed and given away. One hundred palms have already been given to the Cardinals, with the largest one reserved for Pope Francis.

The palms are a gift from those two Ligurian towns and are part of a long tradition that began in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 37 BC.  Pope Sisto V wanted the obelisk moved from its location in Caligula’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square.
The Obelisk in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican
So workmen got busy building the foundations needed to support the heavy obelisk and by the scheduled installation date of September 10, 1586, all was ready. Hundreds of Romans began to gather in  St. Peter’s Square. The monument weighed 350 tons and it was going to take 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches to move it and try to set it up. Who would want to miss that show? No one.  

The Vatican’s Chief Engineer, Domenico Fontana, warned the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence would be needed to raise the obelisk once it was in the Square. Fontana said that even the slightest sound could distract a worker and result in the obelisk crashing down on the crowd. In other words, a total disaster. The Pope turned to the crowd and said, “if anyone speaks or makes any noise during this delicate and risky operation, they will be sentenced to death.”

Cardinals Carrying Palms of Bordighera 
As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding it began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously.  Everyone, including the Pope, was holding their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were not going to hold, they were starting to fray and were almost at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in serious danger of crashing into the ground.

Just then, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the Ligurian town of Bordighera, cried out – “aiga ae corde!” Put water on the ropes. The Chief Engineer spun around to see who dared to speak out, but then he realized the Captain was right. He ordered the ropes to be doused with water. They soon became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised without further danger of falling. Six days later it was blessed and consecrated.
Weaving Palms, One by One 
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 wanted and Captain Bresca said what he really wanted was for his town of Bordighera to provide Ligurian palms to the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.

It’s been more than four centuries since that day the Captain spoke out, and the cities of San Remo and Bordighera have been sending palms to the Vatican ever since. They are used for the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday. For this special ceremony the palms, which are known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures large and small.
 Not as Easy as it Looks
You may think that Captain Breca’s story is pure fiction but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo do have had the exclusive right to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.

If you happen to be at the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, the ashes you receive will be the ashes of the palms of Bordighera and San Remo. The Vatican, and many churches throughout Italy save their palms from Palm Sunday and burn them for Ash Wednesday. The Church considers the ashes from the blessed palms to be sacramental and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion.

1 comment:

  1. The first time we heard this story was on a CD series: The Italians before Italy - a lecture series by Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett of the University of Toronto. If you ever get the chance to listen to these lectures they are fabulous!