For our honeymoon last June, my wife and I planned a tour of Italy, which we did not believe could be complete without a visit to the Vatican. During our research we realized that there would be a Mass held within the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica while we were in Rome, so we decided that it would be the centerpiece of our Rome days and went about looking into how one could attend the mass.
The rest of the story provides more detail and context.
- Check the Pope’s schedule
- Request tickets ahead of time for special events or tight timelines
- Visit the Vatican on the day before the Mass to collect your tickets
- Bring evidence of your ticket request, or a confirmation (if you get one)
- Use the security shortcut to skip the security line and head for the bronze door to pick up the tickets (they are always free)
- Get to the Vatican earlier than you think you should on the day of the Mass (at least two(2) hours before the start time)
- Bring a water bottle or Camelback bag for the line (small bags are allowed in Mass)
- Dress appropriately but comfortably, you will be bounced for un-modest clothing (which includes bare shoulders)
- Remain reverent and polite
- Don’t be afraid to ask the Swiss Guard questions if you get turned around, trust no one else for real information
Mass in the Basilica is somewhat rare
The first thing to know is that there are actually very few Masses throughout the year that are held within the Basilica itself. For the most part, the Pope celebrates in St. Peter’s square, in host churches on visits away from the Vatican, and near his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. So getting a chance to see the Pope celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s is a rare honor, which means that a lot of people want in on the action.
As one of the largest holy structures in the world, St. Peter’s can hold upwards of 15,000 people, yet 10s of thousands of people visit the Vatican each week, all hoping to see his holiness, so there is a lot of demand.
In our case, we would be in Rome during the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, which is also when the church recognizes newly elected archbishops and is one of the few days in the summer when Mass is celebrated in the Basilica.
Tickets are FREE
To find out when and where the Pope will celebrate Mass in the Vatican, review his schedule at the Prefecture of the Papal Household’s website. Be sure that the site is a real Vatican website by confirming that its URL contains a .va domain. The church doesn’t focus on great website design so there are some sites out there that have mimicked their design in efforts to gain views and/or trick people.
As you will notice, the site states when tickets are required for any Papal audience, they are always required for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Papal audience tickets are always free.
But… obtaining them is the trick.
As the site states, for most Masses in the Basilica if you’re looking for a small number of tickets you can likely get them a day before the event from the prefecture’s office without advanced reservation. However, for big events (like Easter) or if your travel timeline is tight (like ours was) then you should reserve tickets ahead of time. To request tickets you need to write or fax a request to the prefecture’s office ahead of time.
We faxed two requests, one in English and one in Italian, about 3 months prior to the Mass asking for two tickets and describing that we were on our honeymoon. We never received a response or confirmation which caused us some worry.
We arrived in Rome the day before the Mass so we decided to inquire at the Vatican about our request, which is where the adventure really began.
The Vatican is an overwhelming experience
For first time visitors – St. Peter’s square was astounding in its scale, with huge monuments and a large multinational crowd, even on a very hot day. The first thing that struck us as we started to ask questions in our touristy Italian was that there are very few officials in the square. The police know nothing about the facility and unlike most American tourist-centric locations there were not any retiree docents with brightly colored badges waiting to help you, at least not that we were aware of. There were however an incredible amount of trinket sellers waiting to rip you off and provide mis-information just steps outside of the square.
Our first stop was at the Vatican post office trailer, where we quickly found that the people selling official stamps and postcards knew nothing about the schedule of the church. Nor did the plain clothes security guards who were standing watch over the exit of the Basilica. The Basilica is open daily for visitors to walk through.
Frustrated that we could not find anyone who 1. knew that there was a Mass in the Basilica the next day or 2. knew how to obtain tickets, we turned to a more official-looking security guard. He too, knew nothing and was slightly annoyed that we were talking to him, but we persisted until he finally brushed us aside saying “talk to the Swiss Guard.”
The fascinating Swiss Guard
As the guard spoke he pointed to a pair of Swiss guardsmen who were standing watch at a road entrance beside the Basilica. About 15 tourists from around the world were taking pictures of the guardsmen from about 10 feet away. At first glance, you would think that these fellas would not appreciate, nor respond to anyone attempting to talk to them. In fact, we believed that they were similar to the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. After practicing our Italian phrases for this situation, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and started walking towards them.
The guardsman closest to us broke his stoic stance, clicked his heels together, stepped to the side of his post, saluted us, and then stood “at ease,” which brought on several camera clicks from the other tourists. We approached and said in very poor Italian “parla inglese?” (do you speak English), to which the young man responded “of course” with better pronunciation than I had heard by anyone in Italy during the week prior.
Side note: we realized later that we probably should have tried the Swiss language since, you know… he’s Swiss; only to find out that Switzerland’s official language is French… or German… or Italian.
The guardsman very politely and clearly explained where to go to inquire about tickets and how to do so. We thanked him and walked away, while he saluted us again and returned to his post. This interaction is one of our most cherished memories of the trip, we felt like statesmen who just learned about a secret pact between two countries.
The “sort of secret” bronze door
On many of the sites that we found that explained where the ticket spot is located there is a reference to a giant bronze door where the Swiss Guard await to shower you with tickets galore! The prefecture’s site has a map that roughly points out the door, and even Google Maps has “Prefecture Della Casa Pontificia” labeled on close-up views of the area. But trust me, it’s not easy to find without a key piece of knowledge.
Our guardsman told us where the bronze door was and how to get to it.
The bronze door is in the secure area of the Vatican, which means that you have to pass the security checkpoint (metal detectors + bag X-ray) to get to it. There was approximately an hour-long line for the checkpoint. However, our guardsman also told us that there is a shortcut through the security checkpoint to pick up tickets, so we trotted on over to the spot that he told us to find.
The security checkpoint shortcut is under the covered & columned hall near the restrooms on the north side of the square. I believe its main purpose is a place to escort people out of the security area near the checkpoint.
Once we arrived at the shortcut the gruff officer posted there asked me if I had any paperwork that he could see. Since we never received a confirmation from the Vatican, I thought we were finally doomed, but my wife remembered that we saved a scan of the request fax that we sent in three months prior on our Google Drive, so I pulled it up and showed it to him via my phone. It worked!
He instructed that one of us would have to stay behind (as human collateral I guess), so my wife stayed behind sensing that this was a bigger deal to me. He directed me into the “fast lane” security line, I made it through and started walking with the flow of traffic towards the Basilica, which passes the bronze door.
Once I saw the bronze door I walked up the steps, confirmed that I was in the right place after seeing another jubilant American guy bounding down the steps grasping an envelope with both hands. At the top there was just one other person in front of me, once he stepped aside the Swiss guardsman in the doorway asked me, in English (I never realized just how obviously American I am), for my name. I spoke it one time. He excused himself, came back about two minutes later with an envelope, handed it to me and politely said “good day.”
The envelope read “Ryan O’Connell” and contained two tickets to the Mass. I was amazed that the guardsman only needed one utterance of my name to find my envelope among what I assume to be hundreds of requests, considering it takes 3-4 slow spellings of my name for customer support at any airline or credit card company to get it right.
I felt as if I was Charlie from Willy Wonka, and a group of tourists broke out in song… at least in my head.
Tickets do not guarantee access
The next morning we arrived at St. Peter’s square around 7am in order to get in line for the Mass, which was scheduled to start at 9am. The square was PACKED with people in line, we ended up getting in line right around the post office trailer, which was on the opposite side of the square from the security checkpoint.
I have never seen so many nuns in one place, ever. The line was festive and we made fast friends with a family from Michigan who too had a wild story about getting tickets.
At 7:30am the security checkpoint opened and began processing the line. At 7:31am I saw a sight I will never forget; in the distance just beyond the checkpoint, a group of 3-4 nuns were running as fast as they could to get up the stairs and into the Basilica. I was both astonished at their speed and giddy for them, they were racing to get front-row seats for possibly the biggest event in their life. We shuffled our feet slowly for the next hour and a half in the increasing heat.
As we got closer to the checkpoint we noticed something shameful. Many people were cutting the line. There were very few security guards present and they were not interested in managing the line at all, so it became a shouting match between cutters and rule followers, it was a sad sight. But this part of the experience highlighted a very important point for anyone hoping to get into Mass, your ticket does not guarantee access. The Vatican does not publish ticket distribution numbers, but it’s safe to say that just like any free or low-cost event, they give out more than they can actually seat.
We made it to the checkpoint at around 8:30am after being heckled for our tickets by those that wanted to get in without waiting in line, and being funneled into a smaller line at the entrance to the checkpoint. It was at this time that I felt really bad for the young Japanese couple a few people behind me who had waited in line just as long as we had, but didn’t have tickets, they were bounced from the line. they were only there to visit the Basilica, and did not realize there was a Mass, and that the Mass required pre-arranged tickets. This highlights the lack of clear postings of the schedule or events around the Vatican, it’s truly a fend-for-yourself situation.
At exactly 9:00am the doors to the Basilica shut and Mass began. I’m guessing that at least 2,000 ticket holders did not get in. We sat about 85% of the way back from the alter and there were some empty seats behind us here-or-there, but not many.
After the many archbishops processed down the center aisle, Pope Francis began his walk. Flanked by several priests, the Pope intently and calmly made his way towards the alter, while on both sides of the aisle priests, nuns, brothers, and schoolchildren alike silently raised their cell phones to get a picture of the pontif.
The Mass was beautiful and moving. Each attendee was given a booklet that contained all of the readings, songs, and responses in both Italian and English. The Mass was celebrated in many languages, with each element read/sung in a different language. However, due to the many people and the general excitement of seeing the Pope a lot of people were not very reverent during the Mass.
Communion was a free-for-all with priests in the center aisle prepared to offer the bread but, due to the crowded nature of the seating, people had to climb over seats to get to the aisle; after helping some nuns move chairs aside so that they could get to the aisle, I was lucky enough to be blessed and receive the Eucharist.
Once Mass ended any shred of reverence went aside and as Pope Francis made his way back down the aisle there were scores of folks clapping, singing, and shouting for his attention. I did capture a quick video of Pope Francis as he walked past us, but I am glad to say that I did not stand on a chair to get it, so dignity did win in the end for me.
Totally worth it
The experience was totally worth it and really at no time did we feel overly frustrated or mad at the process. I am certain that many people lose out on the ability to go to mass in the Basilica each year because the process isn’t clear, the schedule isn’t posted, there are no helpful people in the square, or due to language barriers. We were lucky, and tenacious.