A wet day for the Vatican fire department

Pope Benedict XVI tries on a fire helmet given as a gift by Italian firefighters last June. (CNS photo from L'Osservatore Romano)

Pope Benedict XVI tries on a fire helmet given as a gift by Italian firefighters last June. (CNS photo from L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s firemen — about 30 in all — celebrated the feast of their patron saints Friday with a Mass and a simulated fire call.

The firefighting corps, which dates to at least the early 1800s, is not taken for granted in the 109-acre Vatican City State. So far this year, they’ve responded to more than 600 emergency calls — many of them involving flooded offices and warehouses after recent heavy rains in Rome.

The firemen’s patrons are St. Barbara, who’s protected firefighters and others in dangerous occupations for centuries, and St. Leo IV, who according to legend contained a 9th-century fire near the Vatican by giving a blessing. St. Leo’s gesture has been famously preserved in Raphael’s Renaissance fresco, “The Fire in the Borgo,” which decorates a room of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

The earliest Vatican firemen are remembered for their elegant uniforms, preserved in paintings and etchings held by the Vatican Archives.

The modern firefighting team was reorganized in 1941, and the fire station is tucked into a corner of the Belvedere Courtyard, a crossroads of sorts at the Vatican. Most visitors don’t even notice the fire station, unless their new fire truck, donated by a German company last year, happens to be parked outside.

The feast day went well, according to one fireman, and the squad was able to demonstrate some of the latest firefighting technology in front of Vatican City officials — in the pouring rain.

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