At least 40 participants had filled Sant'Agnese in Agone--a relatively small, but still magnificent church on the city's famous Piazza Navona. Even though Holy Mass was advertised to begin 9 PM, the congregation of mostly young adults was only mid-way through a rosary. (The lax schedule is of particular benefit if you get lost in the surrounding maze of narrow streets.) Even more youth filled the back of the church during the service. Then afterwards, the lights dimmed, the guitar-strumming cantor began her reverent hymn and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament began.
I was invited to this captivating liturgy by Fr. Stefano Cascio, a young priest ordained last year by Pope Benedict XVI. (You may recall that Fr. Stefano joined the S+L team for WYD '08.) Fr. Stefano's vocation to the priesthood was born on one of these Thursday nights. Appropriately enough, Sant'Agnese is were he celebrated his first mass.
It was well past 11 PM when adoration concluded, yet Fr. Stefano was abounding with energy. He rushed me into a closed side chapel to venerate the skull of St. Agnes, the young third-century virgin-martyr.
After a moment to pray with her relics, he hastened me to the other side of the church, whereupon he pushed aside a pew that had been placed to block a doorway. "I hope the alarm isn't set," he worried aloud, but then proceeded down a staircase without hesitation.
I understood Father's overwhelming excitement when he flicked on the light. Downstairs was the 8th century oratory marking the traditionally-held site of St. Agnes' martyrdom. Restoration equipment was everywhere and the dank conditions had rendered the 12th century frescoes nearly invisible. Regardless, like so much of Rome, enough is preserved to make the centuries melt away in the mind.