I discovered it all because I left the window open.

Early this evening I heard what sounded like a parade passing by our student residence. I leaned out the window and saw a Roman street with Sunday traffic. Curious, I went outside and followed the music.

Up the street, standing in ranks outside the church at the intersection, was an orchestra-sized group of men playing a variety of horns and drums. They wore uniforms of black pants and ties and short-sleeved white shirts. They stood in place while passersby watched. No one was dressed up; it couldn’t be a wedding or a funeral. I went back inside.

Things picked up after dark. Now I heard Latin over loudspeakers, and chanting crowds. I leaned out the window again, and saw rows of faithful walking down the street. I glimpsed a gold statue held up on men’s shoulders. This time I grabbed my camera.

The procession filled the street for a block. Men, women and children in street clothes, small packs of nuns in white, black or gray. Holy men in vestments or priest collars. Some carried banners, some large icons. The gilded statue was at the lead. Men in blue uniforms bore loudspeakers on poles attached to their belts; the Latin blared from these. A police sedan with flashing blue lights was at the lead. An ambulance took up the rear. More people moved on the sidewalks. Everyone carried lit candles.

I could make out some of the words. A lot of “Ave Maria, Ave Maria …” and something about St. Benedict. “Amen … amen … amen.” I ran up and down the street snapping pictures with my plucky Fujifilm camera, a little point-and-click not really meant for busy night shots.

The parade turned at the corner and snaked down a side street facing the walls of the Vatican. Another police cruiser waited by the sidewalk. A tall staircase leading up to the massive Vatican walls looked down on the festival.

I stood on the front stoops of shuttered buildings and took pictures. I listened to the Latin, guessing at its meaning. A feast day, maybe. For St. Benedict, maybe, I thought.

At the lead were choir boys carrying the banners, including one with a tall gold crucifix. Behind them younger children, then youths dressed like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The children looked excited and interested. They sang and smiled, and some looked at me self-consciously when my camera flash went off.

The nuns passed in a serious mood, carrying their red candles close to their chests and reciting Latin in low, strong voices. Church men in white chasubles strode purposefully up the street. A photographer stood in the middle of the street, getting his shots while the faithful cleaved to either side. I felt irritated at him for doing that, and embarrassed for his subjects. I stayed on the sidewalk, on front steps, or pressed against parked cars, getting my shots without disturbing the scene before me.

Afterward I asked the woman at the front desk of the student residence what the festival was for. She told me it was for the patron saint of the church up the street. I went out later with Richard and Bobby for gelato, and inside the shop was a poster for the festival of Madonna delle Grazie. Outside, with the church across the street, candles glowing on its rooftop and yellow lights strung along its side and roof facings and outlining the cross atop its bell tower, I saw over the church doors in big block letters: B.V. MARIAE GRATIARVM MATRI A.D. MCMXLI.

Soon after the fireworks began. The show was as loud and colorful as any Fourth of July display. From the patio I could see the fireworks bursting over the lighted cross atop the bell tower. The bursts and streaks of color continued for about 15 minutes and ended to enthusiastic applause from the people behind the apartment buildings surrounding me.

The imagery passing me tonight, the songs and chants, the bobbing yellow bits of candlelight, the peaceful movement of the faithful, put in me a feeling of awe and adoration, stirred up by my own Catholic upbringing. I pondered this for a moment, putting down my camera and just feeling. Several times I knelt for a shot, and did so as much for the angle as to show my respect for what was happening.

I left the church when I turned 18, and I have never believed church dogma, but I understand and appreciate faith in God. The ritual, ceremony and dress of Catholicism appeals to my classical-leaning heart. I thought the timing and the activity were perfect, considering the subject of this project and why I am in Rome. I enjoyed myself as a journalist documenting the festival as much as I did as a man trying to serve God.

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