St. Peter’s Basilica
The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican
The Diaconate Class and the Pontifical North American College welcome you to the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. This church, the largest in Christendom, enshrines one of the holiest Christian sites—the tomb of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles and Christ’s chosen instrument as the minister of unity.
“Thou art Peter,” Jesus solemnly affirmed, “and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Since the apostle’s crucifixion in Rome under the brutal tyranny of Nero, Christians have venerated this sacred spot. Even before the close of the first century, Pope Anacletus had built a makeshift oratory over the “Fisherman’s” tomb, and when Constantine rose to power in the fourth century, a splendid basilica was built here, lavishly decorated with rare marble, mosaics, draperies, tapestries, and precious stones. The very floor around Saint Peter’s tomb was covered with silver and gold.
Pilgrims from around the Roman Empire flocked here to venerate the first Pope’s relics and to admire the sumptuous beauty of his church. Despite centuries of invasions—until the ninth century the Vatican was outside the protection of city walls—the structure stood for a thousand years, and it was not until the fifteenth century that Popes were obliged to consider its reconstruction.
The present church was begun in 1506 and consecrated in 1626, precisely 1300 years after the first basilica’s consecration on November 18, 326. Architects as gifted and diverse as Bramante, Raphael, Sangallo, Michelangelo, Maderno, and Bernini all contributed to the new church’s design, though the interior is largely the fruit of Bernini’s genius.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is neither the cathedral of the Holy Father (the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome) nor a parish church; it is, rather, dedicated to the Universal Church and in a special way to the pilgrims who arrive to venerate the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
You are not visiting someone else’s basilica; you are visiting your own.
It is also important to emphasize that this is a very active church, hosting many Masses throughout the day, confessions virtually all day, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and, of course, ordinations. It is also used by the Holy Father for many ceremonial events like the celebration of principal feast days, the canonization of new saints, and the elevation of individuals to the College of Cardinals. The Roman Catholic Church has convened two Solemn Ecumenical Councils in this Basilica, the First Vatican Council from 1869 to 1870, and the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.
In addition, daily adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament takes place in a chapel half-way down the nave, where you may wish to spend some time in prayer during your pilgrimage to the Eternal City.
The Altar of the Chair
Pilgrims find in St. Peter’s Basilica two focal points: the Altar of the Confessio (main altar), built over the tomb of the apostle, and the Altar of the Chair, which dominates the apse. Both are the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), whose work here put the definitive stamp on the Baroque period. If architecture is music frozen in stone, then the Vatican Basilica is a great hymn of thanksgiving to God for the life of St. Peter the Apostle and the gift of his continuing ministry in the Church.
Experts consider the Altar of the Chair a work of both architecture and sculpture. The dimensions alone are a testament to Bernini’s surpassing genius: the Chair itself is over 20 ft. tall, the figures of the bishops stand between 13 and 16 ft., and the whole work weighs over 150,000 lbs. It is a massive project which took nine years to complete (1657-1666). Yet the scale gives rise to an even loftier purpose, namely, the symbolic representation of the ministry of St. Peter in the Church, handed on through the generations in an unbroken line of Papal Succession.
The center of the work is the “Chair of St. Peter,” referred to in Latin as a cathedra, “chair,” from which derives the English word “cathedral.” This bronze sculpture is actually a very large reliquary, housing the remains of a wooden chair held by tradition to have been used by St. Peter himself when he lived in Rome. The cathedral chair of a bishop is the symbol of his authority to govern and teach the Lord’s flock, since preaching while seated was a sign of authority in Jesus’ time (cf. Mt 5:1). Because of this, the cathedra of St. Peter represents the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as the authoritative foundation of the universal Church, a foundation willed by the Lord Himself (Mt 16:18) and sustained by His own prayer.
It is a ministry of love and service, rather than of power and domination, as depicted on the Chair by the scene of St. Peter kneeling before Jesus, making his threefold confession of love and receiving in return the threefold commission to feed Christ’s sheep (Jn 21:15-17). The three medallions above the Chair on the ceiling depict the source of that ministry and the price which it exacts. In the center is the consignment of the keys, flanked by St. Peter’s crucifixion and the beheading of St. Paul.
Seemingly unsupported in mid-air, the entire Chair appears to be held aloft by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the window above. At the base are four giant figures of the early Fathers of the Church, two from the East and two from the West: (left to right) St. Ambrose, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine. When the Litany of the Saints is sung during the Rite of Ordination, all the saints depicted in the apse will be invoked.
Studying Bernini’s “homily in bronze” teaches us that the Pope, as successor of Peter, is a source of unity for the whole Church and a repository of the Christian tradition. He is assisted in this role by his fellow bishops, the saints of the Church and the great Christian thinkers. Yet ultimately his work is sustained by no human power, but by the Holy Spirit, who never fails to be active in the Church.