Heart of the Church

As the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul approaches, we take a trip to the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome — and other related sites.

One warm summer day many years ago, I saw St. Peter’s and its piazza for the first time. I was, of course, overwhelmed at its grandeur and enormity.

Yet something was not right. Where was Peter in all this? I knew he was the first pope, but how did that relate to this vast complex of columns and statues? He was a fisherman from Galilee.

As I walked toward the left side entrance to the basilica, I looked up at the statue of a muscular man carrying the famous key to the Kingdom of heaven. I felt Peter coming closer.

Then, once inside, I walked along the left aisle to a statue that had many admirers waiting in line. I followed them and found myself rubbing the foot of the saint, which had been smoothed by centuries of hands and lips. St. Peter’s hand is raised in blessing, and you can see the famous key. Not many statues are so beloved. When it was made is unclear. Estimates range from classical times to the Renaissance.

On June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (a holiday in Italy), the statue will be arrayed with alb, stole, red cape and ring, paying tribute to the first pope, who led the Christian flock for about 25 years.

Then I soon saw the twisted columns and lights at the altar above the place where Peter’s bones lay. I felt a kinship with the millions of tourists who had come here through the ages to be near the sacred aura of Peter. The 99 oil lamps in a semicircle here burn day and night.

The emperor Constantine, in the year 324, had a church built here to mark the spot where Peter’s bones were kept, as more and more Christians came along roads the Roman Empire had laid. But wars and relic sellers destroyed that church, and the bones were forgotten.

It was not until the late Renaissance, from 1506 to 1621, that the present basilica was constructed. The popes wanted to take advantage of the supreme talents of Michelangelo and Bernini, to name a few. And it was not until 1939 that serious excavation was done in the ground beneath. Archeologists spent years examining the tombs and relics found there.

And still today they find more.

Bones of the Founders

It is customary to kneel at the semicircular rail near the reliquary that signals the bones of the saint below and recite the Apostles’ Creed. There I was at the heart of the Church, the goal of pilgrims since Peter’s martyrdom. I felt amazingly at home. (There are many places in St. Peter’s to pray, and when tour groups are too noisy or camera-obsessed, you can always go to the wonderful, silent Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, where cameras and chatter are prohibited.)

In the year 195, a man called Gaius wrote: “Go to the Vatican [hill] on the Via Ostia and you will find the tombs of the founders of the Church.”

Directly above the altar you will soon see, around the inside of the base of the famous dome of Michelangelo, the words in Latin: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church. And I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.”

In the left transept a mosaic of a painting by Guido Reni shows St. Peter’s crucifixion, upside down, as he wished, to show that he was not as important as Jesus.

At the far end of the basilica in the Chapel of the Cathedra, a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit is surrounded by little angels who seem to be playing hide-and-seek amid the sunbeams. The elaborate Chair of St. Peter reflects the continuity of the Church. Beneath this chair lies a simple wooden one that is from the fourth century.

To see the excavation level below and the “Red Wall” where the saint’s bones were discovered, go to the entrance in the left aisle, as you will need a ticket and guide.

Continuing our search for St. Peter, cross the Tiber to see, near the Colosseum, San Pietro in Vincoli, or St. Peter in Chains. One of the basilica’s major attractions is a powerful Moses sculpted by Michelangelo. The horns he bears symbolize his strength. (The horns are a result of the Latin Vulgate mistranslation of the Hebrew text. The word for “rays” of light and “horns” is similar in Hebrew, and the Vulgate got it wrong. It’s in the passage where Moses’ face was radiant after talking with God. Michelangelo wouldn’t have known any different version than the Vulgate, so he was simply depicting Moses as described in the Bible.) The chain shown at the main altar is by tradition one of the chains that bound Peter in the Mamertine Prison. That prison is near the Roman Forum and can be visited. The lower level is where Peter and Paul were both chained. When a miraculous spring arose, so the legend goes, they were set free, to be martyred later.

Reading St. Peter

For a final tribute to our beloved saint, go to a favorite church of mine in Piazza del Popolo: Santa Maria del Popolo. Among its many treasures are two paintings by Caravaggio: “St. Peter Crucified” and “St. Paul Converted on the Way to Damascus.” They are both dynamic pictures, showing the famous Caravaggio diagonal construction.

Despite all these wonders, I still needed to know more of St. Peter. Then a curious thing happened. I was traveling to Rome from Florence on a crowded train. I was sitting on my suitcase in the aisle, next to a young woman who was intent on reading something, ignoring the fact that we were thrown back and forth by the train. I soon discovered that her reading material was one of St. Peter’s letters.

It had never occurred to me to prepare for the pilgrimage to the Vatican through the Bible. The Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the two letters of St. Peter were full of tales of the disciple — his ever-present gaffes, annoying Christ and deserting him, and then his being chosen as “the rock” and his 25 years or so as pope.

Apropos of Peter’s desertion, you might want to visit the Church of Domine Quo Vadis on the Old Appian Way near the catacombs. Tradition has it that Peter was fleeing Rome and his execution when he saw Christ coming toward him. “My Lord, where are you going?” he asked. Jesus answered, “To Rome to be crucified a second time.” He then disappeared. Peter returned to Rome for his crucifixion. The footprints of Christ on the spot where Peter stood have been preserved in marble in this church.

The blessings of Peter and Paul make this day an important one in Christian lives. Without them, where would we be?

Barbara Coeyman Hults

writes from New York.

Getting There

The sites mentioned are best found with a good tourist map and a helpful hotel concierge.

Planning Your Visit

Spring and fall are the best times to go to Rome. Try to stay at the center of the city (near the Pantheon), from which you can walk to sites or board a bus when not overfilled.
Buses are often unpleasant for anyone but the pickpockets. Put any valuables in a hotel safe (many have room safes), and keep enough euros for the day in an inside pocket. Keep a list of your passport and credit card numbers.