In Rome, Among Saints: A Reflection on Sacramental Life in St. Peter’s Basilica

I knew the faith that formed this place.

L to R: Light streams into St. Peter’s Basilica; the sun sets the basilica exterior aglow.
L to R: Light streams into St. Peter’s Basilica; the sun sets the basilica exterior aglow. (photo: Meghan Schultz photos)

The doors of the bus swung shut, and the hot Italian sun frowned down on me once again. It was July in Rome, and it was my first time in the Eternal City after 22 years in the Catholic Church. Before this stop, I’d visited several other major European cities, but Rome felt different. In Rome, the statues marking bridges and paintings carved into the walls of buildings were no longer obscure historical markers. I knew them. I could look up into a rendition of the face of Mary on my way to a corner store, and I could recognize St. Michael in the sky, a likeness perched atop a stone structure, from afar. I knew the faith that formed this place.

I first saw St. Peter’s Square at night, on my way to pay two euros for black cherry gelato. The square was illuminated by the surrounding pillars and statues of saints, culminating in the basilica itself, quiet and bright in the dark. I spent several minutes pacing with my head bent, searching for the brick marking the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. This was a story I’d known since childhood. 

I looked up at the saints lined across the top of the columns. They were watching. 

Later on, some friends and I tried the gelato, and it was perfect; cheap and rich. We all said we’d come back for more, but we never did. There was just too much to see. 

St. Peter’s had earned a return trip, though. I went back on a Thursday morning looking for an English-speaking confessional. The Pietà stopped me again, the look on Mary’s face drawing me out from the back of a crowd. Or, rather, the lack of one — she gazed down at her Son, her expression ethereal, head bowed slightly. But her hand held his side tightly enough to make an impression in the marbled cloth. 

‘Pietà’(Photo: Michelangelo/Pixabay)

I turned back towards the doors, where the crowds had lessened and opened a pathway towards the center of the basilica. Sunlight poured through the stained glass like water, pooling on the marble floor, where visitors shuffled out of the shadows to look up at the glimmering gold in the walls. In the sunlight’s diagonal path, dust drifted through the air like incense.

I found the alcove I was looking for, where a few penitents scattered themselves in the pews. The ceiling of the basilica, every inch covered in artwork, loomed far above. A woman knelt at a confessional, a priest leaning forward to speak quickly and quietly into her ear. As he spoke, she nodded repeatedly, her eyebrows pinched and eyes squeezed shut.

My American accent received a patient “English?” before being directed to the very last booth, where I knelt with my palms pressed together and whispered.

“O my God, I am sorry for my sins … ” 

Maybe it was the reception of a sacrament in such a place as this that did it. I walked away to pray my penance in awe of the reality I was participating in — the reality I had been participating in, my whole life. I was baptized as an infant and received my other sacraments in their due turn, regularly attending Sunday Mass with my family. We went not out of obligation but because we were Catholic, and we knew it; and despite whatever spiritual place we found ourselves individually, we believed in it all. 

Amid the constant spiritual activity occurring at every altar of the basilica, prayer rising like smoke from open hands, and beautiful things around every corner, it felt so odd to realize that I was the new thing here. 

For hundreds of years, the sacramental life of the Church has been going on — the woman kneeling at confession, the strangers coming out of the shadows to stand in the light, the Eucharist being raised and consumed over and over again, a stark white mark against the crucifix behind it. The ancient body of the Church rooted here had gone on long before me and would go on long after me.

And somehow, miraculously, it was my home. Here was the Church where I had lived.

That was my last time in St. Peter’s. I saw the saints again, though — glimmering in the dark. Each of their unique outlines stood out against the burn of a sunset, as stalwart and steady as they had been at first sight. Human imprints on an unending skyline: It was easy to remember, then, that they had lived and did live. These men and women had been wrong and right and angry and kind and bitter and glad, and they had found their way by choosing the better part — by knowing well the gift of mercy to choose the better part one more time. 

Now, I am new. I stand where they stood, and kneel where they knelt — maybe not in Rome, but before the Blessed Sacrament or in a confessional, chrism dripping from my brow. The saints persist in the shadow of night, their distinct shapes marking each one as unlike the next. But they are still from one home and one body that has held many, many, many bleeding and broken worshippers before. I am confident, I had thought in that basilica, noticing the flicker of a familiar red candle, that they have room for one more.