St. Peter's Basilica
Text by the Seminarian Guides
North American College, Rome
Visitors have come here to St. Peter's Basilica for hundreds of years to admire its splendid artistic masterpieces and to contemplate its historical monuments. Primarily, however, the basilica's visitors are, and have always been, pilgrims praying for the strength to be better Christians, to follow the teachings of Christ and His Church, and to pay homage to the mortal remains of St. Peter - and to his successor, whose duty it is to maintain the bond of unity, charity, and peace within the Church. I invite you, then, not simply to consider this another tour of another church, but a pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in Christendom, and to pray for your own needs, your families, and the world.
Caligula built an enormous amphitheater here for public games and races, and placed in its center this obelisk from Heliopolis, Egypt in 37 BC. It was called the "Circus of Caligula" or "Circus Vaticanus," and extended from the end of the present basilica to beyond the end of the piazza.
Later it was called "Nero's Circus" after that Emperor shocked everyone by competing with professional charioteers in the racecourse.
At the same time, there was a sprawling necropolis - a "city of the dead" - on Vatican Hill. Though this necropolis is now underground and accessible only by excavations, at the time it was in the open air. Roman sense of the sacredness of the dead: law forbade burial within city limits to prevent their desecration.
A term that helps reveal their different approaches to death: Romans built "cities of dead men" while Christians called their burial grounds "coemeterium" - land of sleeping men.
It was ordinarily fairly quiet out here, beyond the city limits, though the Praetorian Guard sometimes trained in these fields. But on certain pagan feast days, this became the place for wild, brutal games and races in the Circus.
In 64 AD, Rome was razed by a conflagration. When the Emperor Nero himself was suspected, he decided to shift the blame to Rome's favorite scapegoat at the time - the Christians. The first full-scale persecution was launched.
Some Christians were thrown to wild, ravenous animals (sometimes with sheep faces attached to their faces and hides to their bodies), others were sprinkled with pitch and set alight to serve as human torches for the games (and Nero's gardens, now the Vatican gardens), and others were crucified.
In 67 AD, during Nero's persecution, St. Peter was arrested and sentenced to crucifixion. He did not consider himself worthy to be killed as His Lord, so he begged instead to be crucified upside-down. He was interred nearby in an unmarked grave, a poor man's tomb with clay tiles, to avoid Roman suspicion.
Tradition has St. Peter crucified "juxta obeliscum" - next to the obelisk, which was in the center of the circus. It is likely, then, that this obelisk is the last thing that St. Peter saw - and is thus truly a "relic by contact" of the saint. Indeed, it must have been the silent witness to countless Christian martyrs through the years.
After Constantine converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which permitted Christianity to exist and to expand unobstructed, he decided to build a basilica over the tomb of St. Peter.
Legend has Constantine digging the beginning of the foundation with his own hands, filling twelve baskets of earth to represent the apostles.
To build such a basilica over St. Peter's tomb, however, a flat surface was required - and this required disturbing the graves of hundreds of Romans on the Vatican Hill. Roman law stipulated that only the emperor could permit such a sacrilege - and commit it Constantine did - plowing through grave after grave without hesitation. This extreme act, together with the vast expense, can only be explained by one thing: the utter certainty, seventeen centuries ago, that this was indeed the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle.
Constantine laid the foundation in 324, and it was completed in only five years. At first the tomb was open on one side for public veneration, though later, in the sixth century, an altar was built over it, followed by another in the twelfth century.
Though the Pope lived at the Lateran - the Vatican did not become his permanent residence for another thousand years - St. Peter's was a huge, sumptuous basilica, some 400 feet long and, in appearance, somewhat like St. Paul's Outside the Walls. It was entered by 35 gently sloping steps, anticipated by a portico courtyard, and lavishly decorated with rare marble, mosaics, draperies, tapestries, precious stones - the very floor around St. Peter was covered with silver and gold.
It was still the peak of the Roman Empire, and the basilica welcomed pilgrims from all over the world - Franks, Czechs, Teutons, Flemish, Hungarians, Saxons, Armenians, Corsicans.
After the decline of Roman Empire, however, the city and the basilica begin a slow process of decline and decay. Virtually all the treasures of St. Peter's were stolen by Visigoths (410), Vandals (455), Saracens (846) and Normans (1084).
The 846 raid was particularly brutal, when ten thousand Saracen pirates landed in Ostia, swept inland, and sacked the city (and the basilica). In fact, part of the wall built in 852 to prevent this from happening again still surrounds the Vatican today.
By 1309, the area had declined to its lowest point. It was the difficult time of the Avignon Papacy, when Rome was neglected and virtually unpopulated (the population had dwindled to about seventeen thousand people). Things begin to brighten when the Pope returned in 1377.
After trying fruitlessly to renovate and rebuilt Constantine's basilica, the Popes eventually decided that St. Peter's needed a fresh start. In 1506, Pope Julius II laid the foundation stone for what would prove to be an architectural wonder of the world. At first, however, it was to look very different from this today: the architect, Donato Bramante, had designed it in the form of a Greek cross - which has all four cross extensions of the same length. Eventually this was altered to its present form of a Latin cross.
Other architects: Raphael (1514-1520), Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1546-1564), Giacomo della Porta, Domenico Fontana, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1629-1667). Carlo Maderno built the facade, and Bernini built the piazza.
By the Great Jubilee of 1600, pilgrims would have seen the new dome of the church rising above the skyline. The basilica was consecrated on Nov. 18, 1626 - 1300 years after first consecration and 120 after breaking ground on new basilica.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Vatican and Trastevere area continued to grow and become more urban.
With the movement to unify Italy in the nineteenth century, the Papal States found themselves embroiled in war. In 1848, after revolutionaries overran papal forces and murdered Pope Pius IX's prime minister, the Pope escaped the city as a simple priest. He returned with the French in 1850. Eventually, however, the Italians would prove successful and the Pope was obliged to give up his sovereignty over the Papal States.
In the early twentieth century, plans were developed to tear down the dilapidated old buildings between the basilica and the river and to build the Via Conciliazione, as we see it today. This met with some resistance, especially from those who appreciated the suddenness with which a visitor came upon the massive Square and Basilica in the midst of the twisting urban alleys. Eventually, however, the Pope approved the plan and the boulevard was built.
The piazza in front of St. Peter's was built by Bernini between 1657-1667. It was designed with the Feast of Corpus Christi especially in mind, which at the time was very popular and engendered massive public processions.
Today it is used for solemn Masses and ceremonies; for canonizations; for the Pope's Sunday angelus, a devotion commemorating the Incarnation; and for the Pope's Wednesday audience, weather permitting. It holds about 350,000 people - 60,000 in the square alone.
Christ's Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. These are called the four intrinsic characteristics, or marks, of the Church, and three of them are powerfully represented inside St. Peter's Basilica itself: the Papacy representing the "One;" the saints, the "Holy;" and the succession of bishops and Popes, the "Apostolic." But out here in the Piazza, the Church's "catholic" nature is best represented by the great assemblies of people from every nation, race, language, and culture.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations… (Mt 28:18-19)
Colonnade and Statues
The colonnade has 284 columns, four-deep, which appear to be single line of columns if the visitor stands on one of two disks in the ellipse. The central lane of columns was designed to be wide enough for a Cardinal's carriage.
There are 140 Statues above the colonnade. South, from left: Norbert (1st), Jerome (4), Joseph (10), Anthony of Padua (15), Charles Borromeo (16), Philip Neri (17), Francis Xavier (20), Rose of Lima (24), Gregory of Nazianzus (33), John Chrysostom (35), Athanasius (36), Leo the Great (37), Ignatius (39)
Charlemagne Wing: Achilleus and Nereus (8 and 9), Sebastian (15), Bonaventure (last) North, from right: Clare (10), Ignatius of Loyola (16), Benedict (17), Bernard (18), Francis of Assisi (19), Dominic (20), Polycarp (23), Mark the Evangelist (25)
Constantine Wing: George (4), Francis de Sales (11), Theresa (12), Thomas Aquinas (26 and last)
Obelisk is from obeliscus - "in the shape of a spear". For pagans, the obelisk was a solar symbol that represented a vital flow between heaven and earth, a way of communicating to the divine.
This obelisk was built by Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honor of the sun. It was hewn from a single piece of granite and stands thirteen stories tall. Originally it was even larger, but it broke in two during its transport from Egypt. Romans would assimilate everything that they found as they conquered other cultures…and then they would steal it.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V had it moved to the center of St. Peter's Square to serve as the centerpiece of the enormous Piazza that would be constructed. It took four months, 900 men, 140 horses, and 44 winches, to move it less than nine hundred feet.
As a pagan monument in the greatest Christian square, it is a symbol of humanity reaching out to Christ. Originally inscribed to "Divine Augustus" and "Divine Tiberius" and now dedicated to the Holy Cross - "Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat." It is topped by a bronze cross containing a fragment of the true Cross.
Legend has it that the urn at the top of the "needle" contains Julius Caesar's ashes. The obelisk is also a sun dial - shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the paving of the square.
Each fountain is forty feet high. Carlo Maderno built the first one, on the right, in 1613, and Bernini built a replica on the left in 1675 for symmetry. Water is associated with many Christian symbols. In particular, here it symbolizes Christ, the living water of eternal life, and the purification needed to enter the Lord's house.
Two great arms (the dome is the "head") of Holy Mother Church embracing the pilgrim and indeed the entire world. The square, of course, holds the people themselves, and the pagan monument may represent the love with which the Church yearns to illuminate the minds of unbelievers.
The statues elicit two images: the Heavenly Church (the Church "Triumphant") looks on and encourages the Pilgrim Church (the Church "Militant") as she makes her way to her heavenly home. Also, the statues represent people who live their lives in conformity to Christ, the saints, as the foundation of the Church. Finally, the square suggests a great keyhole, the architectural complement to the notion of St. Peter's keys.
The Apostolic Palace contains the living and work quarters of both the Pope and his principal assistant, the Secretary of State. It also houses the Pope's chapel and the many state apartments in which he receives guests and conducts the affairs of his various offices - Supreme Pastor of the Church, Bishop of Rome, head of the Holy See, and Sovereign of the Vatican City State! The Pope's bedroom is top floor, right corner - next to his study.
The image of Our Lady on the Apostolic Palace (Mater Ecclesiae) was placed there by Pope John Paul II on December 8, 1981 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), in gratitude to Our Lady, who he believes intervened during the attempt to assassinate him on May 13th (feast of Our Lady of Fatima) of the same year. On May 13th, 1982, the Pope gave the bullet to the custodian of the Shrine at Fatima, who placed it in the crown of Our Lady's image there.
Atop the facade are thirteen statues of Christ the Redeemer, St. John the Baptist, and Eleven Apostles. Two statues of Sts. Peter and Paul at the foot of the steps replaced two smaller statues in 1847. They were first placed (1838) in St. Paul's Outside the Walls. St. Peter carries the keys of the kingdom bestowed on him by Christ, and St. Paul carries the sword - the means of his own execution, and also in reference to a line of the Bible, from the Letter to the Hebrews.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)
The clock on the left is exact time in Rome. The clock on the right is European mean time. The wrong time on the north clock may also be an attempt to keep the Devil guessing about "the day and the hour." Below the central loggia is a high relief portraying the consignment of the keys by Ambrogio Bonvicino.
I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt 16:19)
The dome is like a giant papal tiara. It was designed by Michelangelo, and completed by Giacomo Della Porta.
This is the smallest independent state in the world. One-sixth the size of the tiny Principality of Monaco. Legally constituted in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty between the Pope and Italy.
There are about five hundred citizens, in addition to Curial cardinals, Swiss Guards, bearers of diplomatic passports, and a few thousand employees. 108.7 acres - smaller than grounds of US Capitol. A third of it is formal gardens with grottoes, fountains, and pavilions.
It has no privately owned real-estate, no income taxes, no general elections. The Pope is the sovereign and has complete executive, legislative, and judicial power. The Vatican has a railway station, grocery store, bank, barracks, library and archives, newspaper, radio station, Ethiopian and Teutonic Colleges, audience hall, Mother Teresa's hospice, museum and heliport.
The purpose of Vatican City State is, as was that of the Papal States, to give the Pope political independence as head of the Church, so that he is not subject to any political power.
The Swiss Guard are the sole remaining unit of the Pope's former army. Their service dates from 1506 under Pope Julius II.
On May 6, 1527, Charles V's army invaded Rome after Pope Clement VII's defenses suddenly collapsed. One-hundred forty-seven Swiss Guards courageously gave their lives defending the person of the Pope, thus buying time for him to take refuge in Castel Sant' Angelo (Clement VII is the Pope that denied the 1530 petition for annulment by King Henry VIII.) Since then, on May 6th of each year, the Guards have their annual investiture in which they swear allegiance to the Pope using an outstretched thumb, index finger, and middle finger symbolizing the Trinity.
Halberds (part pike, part battle-axe on six-foot handles) and swords are their weapons of choice. There are about a hundred Swiss Guards today. To be a Swiss Guard, one must be a veteran of the Swiss Army between 19 and 30 years of age, Catholic, "of good family," and unmarried.
Traditionally, the death of a Pope is confirmed by tapping his forehead with a small silver hammer and calling his first name loudly, three times. Once he is confirmed dead, his chambers and offices are completely sealed.
The Pope's duties are assumed by the Dean of the Cardinals until the election. He must convene the College of Cardinals within twenty days. All Cardinals under eighty years old can participate. They begin in the Pauline Chapel with the Mass of the Holy Spirit, praying for inspiration and wisdom.
The Conclave meets in the Sistine Chapel in rigid isolation, the door strictly locked. ("Clave" means "key.") The door is locked by three men: the Prefect of the Pontifical House, the Commandant of the Swiss Guards, and the delegate for the State of Vatican City.
The election can be by inspiration (acclamation), compromise (negotiation), or scrutiny (secret balloting) - two thirds plus one, a "supermajority." The camerlengo asks the Pope-elect, "Do you accept?"
Results are reported by smoke from the chapel fireplace - black means that no pope has been elected (wet straw is burned with the ballots) and white smoke means that a pope has been elected (only the ballots are burned).
The Pope-elect is escorted to the adjoining room, the Room of Tears - a room completely red with three white Papal cassocks of different sizes. He receives an act of obedience from all cardinals who prostrate and kiss his foot.
Then, at the central loggia - Loggia of the Blessings or Benediction Loggia - the camerlengo announces "Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam!" and new Pope delivers "Urbi et Orbi" address and blessing. He gives this address also at every Easter and Christmas.