The priceless art and historical treasures of Vatican City capture the attention of many more than the world’s 1.34 billion Catholics, but so, too, does the Pope himself. Regardless of religion, tourists who catch a glimpse of the Catholic Church’s Holy Father during their visit to the world’s smallest country almost universally mark the moment as a highlight, contributing to a respect and curiosity that extend far beyond the faithful. For many within the flock, celebrating Mass at the Vatican is the pinnacle of practice, but the crush of crowds, mess of multiple lines and general chaos of surrounding Rome seem daunting obstacles to overcome on the way to this bucket-list experience. Good news: It’s much easier than you think to attend Mass at the Vatican. Here’s how.
Masses are celebrated daily at St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, and are all free to the public. Even better, no tickets are required for these services. You do, however, need to wait in the same line as the tourists queueing to gawk at the basilica’s cavernous interior, so you’ll want to show up with enough time to clear this security checkpoint before Mass starts. In general, Mass is held at least five times daily on weekdays, with even more options on weekends. Because this is an active parish for local Romans, most of the Masses are held in Italian, but there is at least one Latin Mass celebrated daily. These Masses are spread among the basilica’s many altars, and while Vatican.va does list Mass times, it rarely lists locations or languages, so you’ll need to ask on your way in or poke about until you find it once inside. The most common Mass sites are the Altar of St. Joseph (left transept), the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter (apse) and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (right, before the transept), otherwise open only for prayer. You’re also welcome to confess while visiting St. Peter’s Basilica; to do this, look for the roped-off reconciliation area to the right of the monumental main altar and inform the guard of your purpose. Confession is available in several languages, including English. Keep in mind that to enter St. Peter’s, knees and shoulders must be covered, and no shorts are permitted.
The process becomes a bit more difficult if you’re hoping to have your Vatican Mass celebrated specifically by the Pope. The primary hurdle to clear here is scheduling, as the Pope doesn’t regularly say Mass. Other than Christmas and Easter, it’s difficult to know far in advance whether or not the Pope will be celebrating while you’re in town. Though Vatican.va does update a “Pope schedule” with all upcoming appearances, including Masses, it rarely ranges beyond a month or two ahead. Unfortunately, this means you typically won’t be able to schedule a Papal Mass into your travels until the last minute, if one is available at all (and they’re not frequent). If you are fortunate enough to find a celebration during your stay, the only additional obstacle for attendance is ticketing, but these are free.
Acquiring Papal Mass tickets may feel like something of a scavenger hunt, but such is life in Italy (and, therefore, Vatican City) for almost any endeavor, so consider it a cultural quirk. By far the most entertaining way to find tickets is to approach the Swiss Guard and ask for them. You’ll spot the colorfully clad guards all around the Vatican, still wearing the uniforms originally designed by Michelangelo, but the guards you need for this purpose are located at the bronze doors just past the security checkpoint at St. Peter’s Basilica (yes, this means you need to wait in line and pass security to find out if tickets are available). Simply ask for tickets the evening before or morning of Mass, and you can have up to 10, pending availability.
If you need more than 10 tickets or prefer to secure your tickets further in advance, you can request them from the Vatican by downloading the form from Vatican.va and faxing — yes, faxing, and only faxing — your submission to the number provided. In most cases, you will only receive a response if tickets are available and granted.
The most convenient method for securing tickets is through a third party. Be wary of anyone charging for just tickets, but keep in mind some legitimate tour groups charge for an accompanying tour, which often comes with line-jumping privileges and expedited security clearance. The most reputable source for Papal Mass tickets is The Pontifical North American College, and you can simply email them for free tickets and find more information at pnac.org.
If no Papal Mass is available during your stay but you still want to see the Pope, you’re free to attend the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square almost any week. This is also ticketed, and you can acquire tickets through the same methods as for Papal Masses. Finally, provided his schedule has him home, the Pope appears every Sunday at noon to address the crowd in the Square, and this requires no tickets or reservations, offering an attractive failsafe should any of the above obstacles get in your way.
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Vatican City nestles within Italy’s capital, so you’ll most likely fly into Rome-Fiumicino International Airport (also called Leonardo da Vinci International). From here, the Leonardo Express will take you to Rome’s city center for €14 (about $17); trains run every 15 minutes during peak hours (every 30 minutes otherwise), roughly 6:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m., and the ride takes 32 minutes. For half the price (or less), you can brave the bus or local train. Flat-rate taxis are also available for €48 (about $57) to anywhere within the main city core. Once in Rome, you’ll find Vatican City northwest of the historic district, across the Tiber River and just north of the medieval neighborhood of Trastevere. You will have no trouble spotting St. Peter’s Basilica from anywhere along your approach on Via della Conciliazione.
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