Every day, many priests say private Masses at St Peter's Basilica. Some are with groups, others with perhaps one or two people, some studying in the City, others on holiday. There are so many Masses said early in the morning that you can be kept waiting for half an hour before you get an altar.
The regulars will go in via the Sacristy (for which you have to have access to the Vatican City past the Swiss Guards and the Vigili (Vatican Police). The sacristy is to the right of the picture above (you can see a small part of the building.) If you don't have access to the Vatican by such means, you have to go through security and, even if you are there on the dot of 7am, it is five minutes or so before you get to the Sacristy via the Basilica and by then you are lucky to get an altar.
I often wondered how all this actually worked, and this morning I found out. I got up early and was wandering the area outside the Domus Sanctae Marthae (the area pictured above) at 6.50am. Since I don't know the Sacristy (it is a seven storey building - something else to think about for Blackfen) I decided to go in the other secret entrance which is between the white van and the stop sign in the picture the moment it was opened, just a few minutes later. At the top of a short ramp, you enter the Basilica via the door under the monument to Pope Alexander VII. Anyone in the world would be forgiven for stopping at this point and gazing at Bernini's masterpiece with the Sicilian jasper in folds, covering the skeletal figure of death, holding up his hourglass, yet failing to disturb the Holy Father at his prayers.
I left that to later and walked briskly to the Sacristy to find that I was the first one there. I know my way around so despite the slightly surprised looks of the Sacristan and the servers, got an amice from the large drawer which contains hundreds of them. At that point, the back door opened and there must have been thirty or more priests in one of those dignified rushes that indicates that they all know what they are doing and that they must act fast. They were obviously well-known and got handed vestments one by one while I began to fall behind. Nevertheless, I was ready fairly promptly and a boy was deputed by the Sacristan to carry a set of cruets and escort the interloper to the Altar of the Crucifixion of St Peter which was still free. By the time I got there, I guess that all the other altars in the upper Basilica were taken. Underneath the altar are the remains of Pope Saint Leo IX who died in 1054.
The side altars in the main part of the Basilica are perfectly arranged for the celebration of the classical form of the Roman rite. The brass runner at the back of each altar has ridges to hold the altar cards in place. The crucifix is designed to be at just the right height so that the priest looks at it when he raises his eyes at various points in the Mass. The altar is wide enough to distinguish the various parts of the Mass and the footpace is the correct depth to genuflect.
I was not by any means the only priest celebrating according to the usus antiquior this morning. There were plenty of scenes such as this:
As you can see, the priest is kneeling to say the Leonine Prayers after Mass (at the Altar of Our Lady of the Column) and the Missal is left on the epistle side after the Postcommunion Prayer.
There are several traditional Missals now available in the sacristy: though don't count on getting hold of one: bring your own if you want to say the old Mass. If you are on holiday or want to say Mass with a group, the best thing is to turn up at 7am and be prepared to wait. There is plenty to see and marvel at in the meantime and the sacristy does have some little booths where you can kneel and say the prayers in preparation for Mass. The experience of celebrating Mass at St Peter's, whether in the older or the newer form, is well worth the wait.
It occurred to me that the long-suffering sacristans must have a deal of patience with the various different instructions that they have received over the past few years on this matter. I have always found them helpful and efficient (very efficient) and they exhibit that fruit of the Holy Spirit which is so necessary at the Vatican: long-suffering. Perhaps you might remember them and the altar servers in your prayers.
I love the Basilica of St Peter and never tire of it. After my own Mass, there was a chance to adore the Lord at the consecration of a few other Masses and to spend some time praying before the tomb of St Peter. I took this photo of the alabaster window above the Altar of the Chair seen through Bernini's Baldacchino: