St. Peter's Basilica
Text by the Seminarian Guides
North American College, Rome
The Pope is shown blessing the Catholic world in Jubilee of 1750. He is surrounded by the Allegories of Wisdom and Impartiality.
St. Basil is so involved in his devotion at Mass during the Feast of the Epiphany in 372 that he does not notice Emperor Valentius enter with his retinue.
Mosaic of Domenichino's famous painting of 1614, Last Communion of St. Jerome. Note, especially, the wonderful, mournful lion.
There are very few paintings in the basilica because they have mostly been replaced by mosaics made by the Vatican Schools of Mosaic, operational since the sixteenth century and officially founded in the eighteenth century. Mosaics, unlike paintings, cannot be stolen, and do not lose their color with time.
Many question the wisdom, or even the charity, of the Church possessing beautiful art. Why not, it is sometimes wondered, sell all the splendor and give the money to the poor? Quite simply, because the Church sees a positive value in beauty itself, which reflects God and which is an essential part of any human person's happiness. The Church tries to foster and display beauty to draw souls closer to God, and to offer even the poorest of the poor an opportunity to behold beautiful masterpieces. There is the story of a zealous priest who, upon assuming the duties of pastor of a parish, stripped all the gold from the church and sold it in order to give the money to the poor. Later, one of his poorest parishioners approached him and sadly asked, "Father, why have you taken away the only beautiful thing in our lives?"
The body of Pope John XXIII was placed under this altar.
The Pope is shown giving his blessing. The bas-relief shows the institution of the Missions. The allegorical figures are of Wisdom and Prudence.
This contains one of the few paintings in the basilica: actually, it is an icon because it is painted on wood. The altar was built by Giacomo della Porta.
Here lie the remains of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) - one of the great Cappadocian Fathers, who helped clarify the wording of the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
In the spandrels, Nazianzus together with St. Gregory the Great, St. Basil the Great, and St. Jerome.
When Christians fell under the domination of Muslim masters, they often found themselves in slavery when they refused to renounce their faith. Christians would sometimes cooperate to raise funds to buy these slaves their freedom, often under the patronage of Our Lady of Succour - Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Gregory XIII was Pope for less than a year, in 1590 and 1591. He received no statue, and is an unpopular Pope, for naming an inept family member as Secretary of State who squandered the Papal treasury during a local famine. Note unusual "XIIII" instead of "XIV." It is said to be a "recycled" tombstone that had been rejected a year before for Gregory XIII's monument!
The allegorical figures are of Religion and Fortitude. The dragon is a figure from his family's coat of arms.
Gregory XIII was Counter-Reformation Pope, he had direct contact with many saints, including Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola, and indirect contact with St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. He gave his name to Gregorian University and Gregorian calendar.
The bas-relief commemorates the calendar reform of 1582 in which October 4th was followed by October 15th in order to gain ten days on the calendar that had been instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 AD. That date was chosen so that the Feast of St. Francis - October 4th - would not be missed! In rejection of the "papal" calendar, Orthodox Russia did not institute the Gregorian calendar until the Communist revolution in 1917! Indeed, the so-called "October Revolution" was actually in November.
The Blessed Sacrament is exposed here for continuous adoration of the faithful. The tabernacle was built by Bernini. The altarpiece, an oil by Pietro da Cortona, is the only canvas in the entire basilica. In front of the Chapel are Borromini's elaborate bronze railings. On the side altar, the altarpiece is a mosaic reproduction of Caravaggio's Entombment.
The allegorical figures are of Charity and Justice.
She was Gregory VII's champion against Henry IV, at whose castle the Pope retreated when the Emperor tried to take the Pope hostage. The relief shows Henry IV kneeling before the Pope on January 28, 1077 after waiting for three days and nights to be received!
St. Sebastian died c. 288 in the Diocletian-Maximian persecution. He was the captain of the famous Praetorian Guard. After being shot with arrows for confessing Christianity, he was nursed back to health. In a remarkable act of bravery, however, he later intercepted the Emperor, denounced him for the persecutions, and was rewarded for his efforts by being beaten to death on the Emperor's direct orders.
Under the altar lie the remains of Blessed Innocent XI (1676-1689).
The Pope is shown blessing the faithful and turning away from the scourge of war in his desire to end the Second World War. The heavy cloak represents the heavy weight of war, and also symbolizes the cloak of his protection that he extended to countless refugees during the war.
There is an unfortunate campaign, at present, to defame the good Pope's memory. It is an effort that flatly denies certain historical facts and that scorns the testimony of so many witnesses who lived during that dark time. Eugenio Pacelli, who would later become Pope Pius XII, wrote Pius XI's encyclical, 'With Burning Anxiety' that was smuggled into Germany and read on Palm Sunday in 1937, one of the Papacy's most stinging criticisms of a political regime in modern history.
A few examples of his actions as Pope Pius XII: he ordered thousands of false baptismal certificates to be prepared in Turkey to smuggle Jews out of Europe. Hundreds of convents and monasteries in Rome, and the Vatican itself, hid thousands of Jews during the war. The Papal coat of arms was placed over the Roman Synagogue to make it Vatican property and so to protect it from confiscation and desecration by the Germans. When the Catholic Church did explicitly condemn the Nazi regime - in Holland in July, 1942 - Jews and prominent Catholics alike (especially priests) were rounded up and sent off to concentration camps. Eighty percent of Dutch Jews died in Hitler's slaughterhouses. In contrast, eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the war. This may help explain why the Pope played his cards very carefully.
After the war, the diplomat Pinchas Lapide (who served as Israeli consul in Milan and interviewed Italian Holocaust survivors) declared that Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."
In the words of Albert Einstein: Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly. (Time Magazine, Dec. 1940)
For an excellent compilation of information regarding Pius XII and the Jews during the Holocaust, see the Feb. 26, 2001 Weekly Standard article by David G. Dalin, found on the Internet.
He was the first sovereign of the Vatican City State.
The brave Swedish queen who relinquished the throne in order to embrace Catholicism. (The abdication document is in the Vatican Archives.) After enduring the scorn of Swedish nobility, she left her homeland and settled in Rome until her death. Note the magnificent, crowned skull - showing the fleeting life that we lead, and the crown that awaits us if we are true to the faith.
Above the Holy Door on the inside is an ancient mosaic of St. Peter from the old, Constantinian basilica.
The Pieta by Michelangelo was sculpted from a single block of white Carrara marble in 1498-9, when the sculptor was twenty-four years old. In order to keep the visual proportions correct, Mary is almost three feet taller than Christ. It was disfigured in 1971 by a madman, though restored within the following year by using a mold that had been prepared prior to the Second World War in case of wartime damage.
As we come to the end of the tour, I have purposefully committed one glaring omission, so important - indeed, crucial - to us Catholics. From the infancy of the faith, Christians have had a deep, tender love for the Mother of Jesus, who is their mother, too. When the first St. Peter's basilica was built in the 300's, twenty-seven out of one hundred twenty altars were dedicated in her honor. In 431, at the third Council of Ephesus, Mary was explicitly declared to be the "Mother of God," since she was the mother of Jesus who cannot be artificially split from his divine nature. Why did the early Christians, and why do Catholics and Orthodox today, have such veneration for Mary? Perhaps it is best to begin with the Fourth Commandment, which instructs us to love and honor our mothers and fathers. Who would better uphold this commandment than Our Lord, who Himself had issued it? As our Master does, so do we. He honors His Mother Mary: thus, so do we. We love her as our Mother and the Mother of the Church, indeed as the icon of the Church. We pray to her, even as we pray to each other and to all the saints, that she may intercede for us before Her Divine Son with her unique and powerful intercession as His mother. Here she is seen, depicted by Michelangelo perhaps in one of the finest pieces of art anywhere in the world, at the moment when her Son's body is taken down from the Cross and placed in her lap. She had remained with Him while He hung on the Cross, when practically everyone else had abandoned Him. Her peaceful, serene, sorrowful gaze captures best what Catholics love most about the Blessed Virgin - her perfect, humble response to God's will.
When Mary brought the infant Jesus to the Temple for the Presentation of Our Lord, Simeon the priest "blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." (Lk 2:34-35)
Michelangelo portrays her as a young woman, perhaps in order to reflect Mary's singular privilege of having been born without the stain of Original Sin and its effects of sinfulness and bodily decay. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, we Catholic believe that, at the end of her life, Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul, and there intercedes on our behalf until the final consummation of the world. She is, as one author has stated, "humanity's single boast," and has been the hope and refuge for countless Christians through the centuries who have drawn closer to Our Lord Jesus by drawing closer to His Mother Mary. Gazing at Michelangelo's Pieta and contemplating Our Lady and the lifeless body of her Son gives us a glimpse into the heart of Christianity - into the great mystery of our redemption and the infinite love that Our Father in heaven has for each one of us.
of confession: Summer weekdays (7-12.30, 16.00-19.00) Winter weekdays
(7-12.30, 15.00-18.00) Sundays and Holy Days (7.00-13.30)
Curia - presided over by the Secretary of State, Cardinal who is Pope's
Chief of Staff.
Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy - trains Vatican Diplomats
Vatican Radio - 34 languages; run by Jesuits; first in 1931; 175-ton antenna several miles north of Rome; carries papal speeches, blessings, and sometimes encoded messages to church officials abroad
Vatican Post Office - from 14th century with apostolic couriers. Vatican stamps first issued in 1852. Approximately 1000 letters per day for the Pope.
L'Osservatore Romano - daily in Italian, weekly in five other languages
Pius X Pre-seminary - for altar boys (above St. Peter's sacristy)
Sampietrini (men of St. Peter's) - skilled workers of traditional hereditary corps for four centuries.
Vatican hospice of Missionaries of Charity - hospice built in 1989 at Mother Teresa's request.
Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary - helps to restore tapestries in the Vatican workshop
Paul VI audience hall - seats 9000.
Apostolic Palace - at bronze doors on Constantine Wing; contains Pontifical Apartments
Castel Gandolfo - Papal summer refuge in Alban Hills near Rome.
Vatican Museums - 14 museums, Vatican Library, Secret Archives
of the Church
Call to Holiness
of the Dome
above St. Longinus to St. Andrew
above Left Nave
Spirit, Sacred Tradition
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thes 2:15)
There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (Jn 21:25)
History, Piazza, Vatican City State