“It is not only that Rome is Papal, but that it is so obviously proud of being Papal. True, this is not because the Pope is proud, but because of the mysterious circumstance that a large number of people are proud of the Pope.”
The Eternal City is indeed Peter’s city; his is the office commissioned by an eternal king. For a paper in our art and architecture class in Rome, some of us at Bernardi had the oppotunity to write a paper on Sixtus V and his renovation of Rome. From facades to fountains to obelisks to aqueducts, he recovered the city from its decline and neglect during the Avignon papacy. In doing this, he contributed to the presence of the popes in Rome. The papal emblem of keys is everwhere you look. In fact, I would say it’s hard to find a place where the symbol isn’t visible. But the most powerful symbols of the pope, his office, as well as the Church and her mission, lie in a single vertical line that begins 30 feet underground and ends 448 feet in the air.
My fellow Bernardians and I spent a certain Wednesday on this line, starting at the top with the cupola of Michelangel’s dome. Here you stand at the highest point in all of Rome, with a 360 degree view of the city. The Pantheon, the Coliseum, the major basilicas, you can see it all from that great height.
Although by Roman law no other building is permitted to be built higher, some argue that this stunning view can only be second-best in Rome, since you can’t see the Basilica of St. Peter’s very well while you are standing on it. And this brings to light an important fact about the dome: it was not made to be looked from so much as it was made to be looked at. It was built for a specific purpose; to point the eyes of every Roman, tourist, Catholic, pagan, businessman and beggar to the heavens. And it fulfills this purpose quite well.
We continued our day on this vertical line inside the Basilica, gazing up at the dome’s interior, with its frescoes of God at the center and Christ, Mary, the angels and saints on the way down. Below this was the baldachin designed by Bernini, topped with a cross ten stories in the air. On the underside of the this canopy is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, from whose wings comes a wind that blows through the cloth-imitating bronze. Moving downward is the main altar, at which the Pope celebrates the Mass on Feast Days. Underneath the altar one can peer down into the Confessio, where several sheep’s wool stoles are found, given to the Roman church by the patriarchs of the Eastern Rites as a symbol of the Church being at the same time One and Universal.
In the afternoon, we continued to descend, as we entered a door in the side of the basilica that led down to the scavi, or excavations that had taken place during the Second World War. Here was discovered an ancient necropolis, which later served as the foundation for Constantine’s basilica in the 4th century. That necropolis had lain just outside the Circus of Nero, where St. Peter himself was martyred in 64 A.D. By this time, the Roman families had started to remove their dead from the sarcophagi there, and Christians used the abandoned tombs. In 1941, a tomb was found in the necropolis where Peter would have been buried, covered in 1st-century graffiti. Upon examination, this graffiti was found to be dozens of petitions to St. Peter, that he might pray for deceased family members. When the bones of this tomb were removed and studied, it was determined that they belonged to a 60-70 year old man of sturdy build and placed there in the 1st century. Today they are widely believed to be the bones of St. Peter.
Our tour guide, a seminarian from Ukraine said, “Now we have seen today all these levels of history, with many churches, many stories, and many rocks. But really it is one Church, one story, and one rock. And the rock is called Peter.”
As I considered this, my mind flew backwards along our tour, forward in history, and upward through space, up to the necropolis where early Christian martyrs lay, to Constantine’s basilica where Christians celebrated the Eucharist for over 1,000 years, to the patriarchs’ stoles showing Church unity, to the Papal altar which unites heaven and earth in the Mass, to the Holy Spirit which guides the Church, and up to the dome where the saints propel you towards Christ, who leads you to God the Father in the center of the dome, which erupts in a single point, the cross on top of the dome which looks out over the world and touches the heavens.
Our guide led us into a small, damp room of the necropolis. There, in front of the stone full of ancient graffiti, was a small glass box containing many bones. Deacon Dan Weiske had accompanied us on our tour, and said a prayer with us all for the intercession of a saint who was killed over 1,900 years ago. But first he pointed out, “There in the front, the largest bone you can see in that little box, is a jawbone. That is the jawbone that spoke the words, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
St. Peter, pray for us.