Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Confessionals at San Giovanni

Today, we visited San Giovanni in Laterano. San Giovanni is a very large basilica that was something like a precursor to the Vatican. It was actually the first cathedral of Rome. The Pope's official ecclesiastical seat is the Bishop of Rome and San Giovanni is where the seat is held (1). Thus, just like the Vatican, San Giovanni is extraterritorial and administered by the Vatican.

Saint Giovanni in Laterano means Saint John in Lateran. The land on which the church was built was confiscated from the Laterani family by Emperor Constantine and St. John refers to John the Baptiste (2). I snapped a quick picture of the statue of John that stands below the altar. I had trouble identifying the statue at first; not knowing that Giovanni translates to John. Joe and I discussed who it could be and to give us credit we did consider St. John as a possible candidate...along with Jesus and Jebediah Springfield.

If one thinks of saint statues as action figures, St. John's has collected all of the best ones. Carley pointed out the most intense saint statue at Saint John's. It is of Saint Bartholomew holding a piece of his skinned face. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was killed for converting his brother, the King of Armenia, to Christianity. St. Bart is typically represented in this way; holding his own head or his own skin.

I was surprised when I entered St. John's to find so many people confessing. There were more people seeking absolution at San Giovanni than at any other church that I have been in with the exception of St. Peter's. The confessional crowd, however, seemed to be comprised mostly of people involved with the church. I saw a host of nuns going to an from confession while I tried to get pictures of the confessionals. I was able to snap this shot while hiding between a column and some chairs which ended up in the frame. My suspicion, that certain confessionals serve certain populations, has been confirmed again at St. Johns.

Having seen many confessionals by this point, I have also noticed that the elaborateness of the confessionals themselves seems related to the importance of the church. It might also be related to how many confessors the church serves. In any case, both St. Peter's and St. John's have significantly more complex confessionals than Santa Maria Liberatrice. Although one cannot enter fully into a confessional at St. John's, when kneeling as one can at St. Peter's, the walls on the sides of confessional conceal the confessor with the possible exception of his or her shoes. The level of privacy for the penitent at St. John's is thus much greater than the level of privacy for the penitent of Santa Maria Liberatrice.

Lights continue to be important as well. At Santa Maria Liberatrice, the first thing that the young priest did when he entered the confessional was to turn the light on. The light seems to be the universal sign that the confessional is open for business. The light at Santa Maria was a simple bulb that the priest also used for reading. It shown through a hole just above the doors of the confessional. At St. Peter's and St. Paul's, the light is colored (green and red respectively) and is separate from the light that the priest uses to illuminate his chamber.

1. Fiona Wild, ed., Eye Witness Travel Rome (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993), 2007 edition, 182-183.
2. Wild, 182-183.

1 comment:

Tom Benson said...

Perhaps part of the reason the church was so busy is that it is one of the seven pilgrim churches in Rome --