Tourists throng to the Duomo and Santa Croce at all hours of the day. But of all the things to do in Florence to get a real sense of the grandeur of a Florentine church (and the role it still plays in local life), schedule a visit around an evening service.
The Church of San Miniato al Monte, flanked by rose gardens, up a hill overlooking the Centro Storico, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Florence: tessellations of green marble geometric on white stone, its arches perfect in proportion. But as I head towards the low-vaulted crypts: past a “NO PHOTOS” sign that marks the end of the tourist area of the church, I hear soft voices, singing.
Fifty people are sitting on splintering wooden chairs. Children are fidgeting. Old ladies are leaning on one another’s arms. Nobody holds a camera. The frescos have long faded into the plaster. Christ has no face, but, here and there, colors slash across the aged whiteness of the walls. A bald, bowed priest is leading Latin Mass. We all know the words:
Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae.
Halfway through, the priest begins to sneeze. At first, it’s only the children who giggle: the two pre-teen boys beside me who mimic each achoo. But he keeps on sneezing, and soon the mothers are laughing, too, and the fathers who stand against the columns, the old women in their hats.
We are all laughing, together, and by the 12th or 13th sneeze the priest is laughing too.
Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.
One of the little boys pokes me in the shoulder. He stares, then takes my hand.
I look around. We are all holding hands, now, shoulder to shoulder, our heads bowed. We might be foreigners, locals, strangers – we all chant in Latin – we cannot tell.
One by one, the old men, the mothers, the children take my hand; they embrace me.
“Pace, pace, pace,” they chant.