“The world needs men and women who are not closed in on themselves, but filled with the Holy Spirit”, said Pope Francis as he presided over Mass in St Peter's Basilica this Pentecost Sunday. Upon its completion, a short distance away from the Vatican, just over the River Tiber, those gathered in the ancient Pantheon witnessed a visually spectacular rite, still as rich in symbolism as it was two millennia back: a fluttering of bright crimson petals came down through the oculus of the ancient Pantheon, evoking the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of bright red flames on the Day of Pentecost.
Pentecost Sunday, also known as White Sunday, is a significant day on the Christian calendar, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and several of Jesus’ followers. For some, this day symbolizes the very ‘Birthday of the Christian Church’. How surprising, some might think, to have it celebrated in the Pantheon too, an edifice which was built to honor all pagan Gods?
Built in 27-25 BC by the magistrate Marcus Agrippa, then completely rebuilt in 125 AD by Emperor Hadrian, the Pantheon functioned for over two centuries as a temple dedicated to pan theos, meaning ‘all the gods’. As such, its interior was adorned with magnificent statues and on special days the Pantheon would host animal sacrifices, performed in the center, with the thick column of smoke escaping through the oculus, the round opening at the dome's apex. However, as with many other ancient buildings in Rome, erected to honor Gods and Goddesses, once Christianity replaced paganism as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the Pantheon was closed. It was reopened in 609 AD, when, after Byzantine emperor Phocas (602-10) gave it to Pope Boniface IV (608-15), the Pantheon was consecrated as a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. As such, it became the first pagan temple in Rome to be Christianised.
The rainfall of red roses, ‘la pioggia di petali di rosa’ as it is known in Italian, takes place every year now, on Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter. An ancient tradition, it is believed to have been first performed on 13 May 609, the very day when Pope Boniface consecrated the Pantheon. Interrupted for centuries, the tradition was revived in 1995 and ever since, has attracted many with its impressive display. As soon as the Mass of Pentecost is performed, the rose petals are released through the opening, the main source of natural light in the building. The gesture is performed by five well-trained fire fighters, who climb to the top of the 43-meter high dome carrying seven canvas bags filled with rose petals. The result, a mesmerizing flight of crimson red petals, fills the air for several minutes, then settles in a thick and fragrant red carpet.
Were you not among those gathered in the Pantheon on last Pentecost Sunday? This is not the only tradition involving a ‘rainfall of rose petals’, so you can still witness one of these special events, this summer. On August 5, Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, a Papal major basilica and the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, hosts the ‘rainfall of white rose petals’, celebrating the ‘miraculous snowfall’, which fell on that very spot one hot August day, indicating where the Church should be built. Ever since that day, back in the 4th century, Mary Major is also known as Our Lady of the Snows.
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