Saint Peter's Basilica

To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another…helps us not only live our lives as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who Himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who has become our traveling companion.

-John Paul II, “Letter on Pilgrimage,” 1999

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As we travel through Rome, let us keep in mind that the Lord is our traveling companion, and let us begin our first pilgrimage with the papal basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

ROME was the model of a republic, made great by senators and tribunes, by such men as Cicero and Julius Caesar. It was also a great empire, spreading its language, laws, and culture throughout the ancient world. We think of Augustus and Constantine. And most importantly, it is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and the city of the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, Lawrence and countless other martyrs of the faith.

Peter, Apostle of Jesus Christ, attests to the Gospel truth that human greatness can be recovered by the grace of God. The Lord chose Simon, a simple and unrefined Galilean, as His primary representative among His followers, giving him the name Peter. Together with his brother Andrew, Peter was called by Christ to follow Him. He was especially close to the Lord, going with Him throughout His ministry. He witnessed the Transfiguration and the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane. Often acting as spokesman of the Twelve, Peter was the first one to recognize the divinity of Jesus. Enthusiastic and generous, Peter promised unfailing loyalty, which he promptly broke, going through a succession of ardor, denial, and repentance. Peter’ profession of faith made him the “rock – petra” of the Church of Christ. Jesus entrusted to him the continuation of His pastoral ministry and confirmed him as His unfailing follower (The Major Basilicas, Libreria Editrice Vaticana).

In an encounter with Peter after His Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times (John 21: 15-19): “Simon, son of John, do you love Me? After affirming three times that he loved the Lord, Peter was told: “Follow Me.” Peter would follow the Master to the point of sharing in His death by crucifixion.

Concerning his time in Rome, it is an established historical fact that, during the last portion of his life, Peter labored in Rome and there ended his earthly life in martyrdom. The duration of his apostolic activity and the dates of his arrival and death are uncertain. The fact that Peter died in Rome constitutes the historical foundation of the claim of the Bishops of Rome to the Apostolic Primacy of Peter.

The following story is a legend:  the Christians of Rome urged Peter to flee the persecution of Nero who was blaming the Christians for the devastating fire that destroyed 10 out of 14 regions of Rome in 64 AD. Peter was won over by their laments and left the city unaccompanied. He was about to walk through the city gates when he saw Christ coming toward him and said: “Lord, where are you going?” (“Domine, quo vadis?”). Christ replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter understood that the words referred to his own martyrdom, and returned to the city joyously glorifying God. The Church of the Quo Vadis on the Appian Way, the oldest and most famous Roman road, marks the site of this encounter.

Let us begin our pilgrimage at the Basilica of St. Peter. Why is there such a magnificent church, the greatest and largest one in all of Christendom, with the world’s masterpieces of art and architecture on Vatican Hill on the west bank of the Tiber River? Because Peter is here. Vatican Hill was the site of the burial of St. Peter after his crucifixion in 68 AD during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero. There has been a church on this site in honor of St. Peter ever since 318. At this time, the Emperor Constantine began building the first basilica near the Circus of Nero where the death of St. Peter took place. There is a marker in the pavement near the Scavi Office (inside Vatican City) signaling the site of the obelisk that stood in the middle of the Circus. The obelisk, now in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, was probably the last earthly object that Peter saw before he died.

The Old St. Peter’s, as the Constantinian basilica is called, stood between the 4th and the 16th centuries and took 40 years to complete. By the 15th century the church was falling into ruin. At first there was every intention of preserving the old church, but then Pope Julius II decided to tear it down. The original altar was to be reserved in the new building because it had been placed directly over the tomb of St. Peter. The Pope ordered a larger and more splendid church using Donato Bramante as the architect. The basilica’s original design of 1506 was a Greek- cross plan (+) surmounted by a great dome. In designing the dome, Bramante was inspired by the Pantheon. But Bramante died in 1514 and was succeeded by Antonio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Carlo Maderno. All of these artists made contributions to the New St. Peter’s. Maderno lengthened the nave, the main aisle, turning the shape of the basilica from a Greek into a Latin cross, and Michelangelo perfected the dome, making it higher and more elliptical than Bramante’s.

Under the dome is a large Baroque sculpted bronze canopy, technically called a ciborium or “baldacchino” in Italian.  Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, it was intended to mark, in a monumental way, the tomb of St. Peter. Under this canopy is the high altar (belonging to the time of Clement VIII, 1592-1605) over the site where Constantine built a monument to St. Peter around 315 AD directly over the tomb of St. Peter. Commissioned by Pope Urban VIII Barberini, the canopy was begun in 1623 and finished in 1634. The canopy with four columns is 66 feet high and the solid bronze is made to look like fabric. The structure is decorated with detailed motifs including the heraldic emblems of the Barberini family, such as bees and laurel leaves.

The cathedra, or the Chair of St. Peter, and the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel are also by Bernini.

There is almost no paint in the basilica. The decoration is micro-mosaic, mosaics so small that the pictures look like they are painted.

There are many sculptures in the Basilica of St. Peter, but there is one exquisite sculpture that deserves our close attention; that is, the Pietà by Michelangelo. This famous work of art, sculpted from one piece of Carrera marble between 1498 and 1499 by the 24/25-year-old artist, depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of His Mother Mary after the Crucifixion and portrays the sanctity of the moment. Much of Mary’s body is concealed in monumental drapery. Michelangelo sculpted a young and beautiful Mary as the Mother of a 33-year-old Son. This is common in depictions of the Passion of Christ at the time. Various explanations have been suggested, but one is that Mary’s youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity in which Michelangelo surely believed since he was a Third Order Secular Franciscan.

The marks of the Crucifixion on the body of Christ are limited to small nail marks and an indication of the wound in His side. His face does not reveal signs of the Passion. Michelangelo did not want his version of the Pietà to reveal death, but rather to show the “religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son.”

The sculpture was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the north side of the entrance of the basilica, in the 18th century. It is the only piece that Michelangelo ever signed.

When St. Peter’s façade, designed by Carlo Maderno, was completed in 1614, it was necessary to work the area in front of it. According to Bernini’s design, the piazza or square is an oval enclosed in two semi-circular colonnaded porticoes that represent the Church’s maternal embrace extended to the faithful, but also to the “heretics, reconciling them to the Church, and to the infidels enlightening them to the true faith” (Bernini). The colonnaded porticoes have 284 Doric columns and is crowned with 140 statues of saints, sculpted by Bernini’s students.

The new St. Peter’s took 120 years to build from 1506 to 1626.

There is much more to tell about the basilica, about the popes, the significant relics, the statues, but I pray that you will come to Rome and see with me.


*“(Jesus) said to (the disciples), ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16: 15-16). ‘I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church…and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 16:18). These are the words on the band around the base of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

On the top of the right wall inside the basilica is the continuation of the words of Christ (Mt 16:19): Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

All of the above words “in bold” are written in Latin in large black mosaic letters six feet high on a gold background. They invest Peter with supreme authority.

What were the words that Jesus used to ask me to follow Him?

-With Jesus as my traveling companion in this moment of my religious life, what is my response to Him if He should ask me, “Who do you say that I am?”

-At Profession of Vows, I was enthusiastic, generous and filled with determination and grace, ready to give my life, maybe even if it meant physical martyrdom, for the Lord. Have I experienced any backsliding? Do I rely on the continuing grace of the Lord, even in dryness, or do I try to set out on my own?

* Matthew 16:24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

By following Christ and being configured to Him in religious life, what are some of the crosses that I am experiencing now?

– Have there been big crosses in my life that I have had to carry?

-Am I able to see the hand of the Messiah in and on my crosses?

-Were there any crosses that I had to bear specifically pertaining to my vocational discernment, when the Lord asked me to come follow Him? Have I seen the work of God in these crosses?

-I want to take a moment to contemplate Christ’s suffering, and how it can sanctify my own suffering, both now and in the future.

*My favorite sculpture in the world is the Pietà.  When I read the following passage in Hans Urs Van Balthasar’s book, MARY FOR TODAY, I thought immediately of the face of Mary as sculpted by Michelangelo for the Pietà. First, he speaks about her Son on the Cross, then about Mary: “In the Crucified One the soul that dies is divided from the spirit of mission which is breathed out with the bowed head and given up to the Father and to the Church: in the mother who shares his suffering, whose “soul magnifies the Lord” and whose “spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Lk 1:46-47), the sword pierces between praise and rejoicing: the rejoicing is borne away with the spirit of God, while the soul remains behind and, when the body is taken down from the Cross, can only utter the assent of praise with a sigh in the most profound darkness, in the utmost weakness.

-What do you see on the face of Mary in this masterpiece?

-She is still a Mother, holding Him and caring for Him. Can I relate to her in my role as a spiritual mother?


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