VATICAN CITY – While Archbishop Francesco Marchisano has the necessary background for his Vatican jobs, it still seems a bit odd that he has so many.
The 73-year-old archbishop is president of the pontifical commissions for the Cultural Goods of the Church and for Sacred Archeology and – since late April – archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica, papal vicar for Vatican City State and president of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office in charge of the physical upkeep of the basilica.
“I think the Holy Father wanted to entrust St. Peter's to someone who knows about art and archeology, in this case, yours truly,” the archbishop said.
Even with his background of promoting the study and preservation of the Church's patrimony of sacred art and holy sites, being in charge of everything that goes on inside the world's largest Christian church is a learning experience.
For example, he said, periodically old beams in the ceilings of the basilica are replaced with new ones.
When the basilica was constructed almost 400 years ago, the wood was dried, but not treated with chemicals to deter pests.
“Insects and rodents have eaten them; it's really interesting,” he said. “They showed me one old one, which turned to dust when I touched it.
“Entering the basilica, no one thinks about what an enormous job the maintenance is,” the archbishop said.
The fabbrica employs about 100 maintenance workers, including janitors, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, artists and experts in the upkeep of mosaics and marble.
Archbishop Marchisano said the Vatican keeps no count of how many people visit the basilica each year “because it is a church, not a museum. Obviously, millions visit each year.”
The basilica also employs an army of ushers to ensure people are dressed appropriately when they enter, that they don't use their mobile phones inside, that they keep their voices down and that they generally behave in a dignified manner.
“It does not create any problem that most visitors are not Catholic,” the archbishop said. “It is an opportunity for reflection, especially when they visit the excavations and see what [Emperor] Constantine did in order to build an altar and a fitting church over the tomb of St. Peter.”
The basilica, he said, is vivid proof of “what a monument can accomplish by itself, both from a religious and a historical point of view.”
However, Archbishop Marchisano said, nothing above ground – not even the works of Michelangelo and Bernini – make any sense apart from the first-century tomb under the basilica where it is believed St. Peter is buried.
“From a historical and spiritual point of view, everything under the basilica is more important than anything else. Everything you see above ground today – all the art, the sculptures, the expense – is there to honor the tomb of St. Peter,” he said.
The archbishop, who has worked in Vatican administrative posts for more than 40 years, also now has major pastoral and liturgical responsibilities.
As papal vicar for Vatican City State, he is bishop of those living inside its walls. Since April, he has visited all of the resident religious communities – women from 11 orders and men from 12 – as well as the pastors of both Vatican parishes: St. Peter's and St. Anne's.
The archbishop said he has no plans to take over the liturgical life of the basilica, preferring to join the normal rotation of the 32 priests who serve as canons of St. Peter's.
Another thing he is not planning – to the shock of an Italian journalist who asked the archbishop's input for his annual survey – is a summer vacation this year.
There just isn't time.