At St. Peter's Basilica The 2000 Countdown Begins With a Bang!

VATICAN CITY—The restored façade of St. Peter's Basilica was blessed by Pope John Paul II in an evening ceremony Sept. 30 that heightened expectations for the Jubilee Year.

Calling it the “restoration of the century,” Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls likened it to the restoration of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel: “That was the pictorial restoration of the century, this is the stone restoration.”

The massive, two-and-a-half year work of restoration has left even long-time Romans astonished at the restored beauty of the façade. As other Jubilee public-works projects remain as-yet unfinished, and the city of Rome is plagued by hundreds of construction sites, the on-time completion of St. Peter's lifted spirits among both Church and Italian government officials.

The restored façade was inaugurated with a 20-minute pyrotechnic spectacular that left mouths agape amongst the thousands in attendance in St. Peter's Square. The fireworks, which were shot off from the top of the façade and from the steps of the basilica, no more that 50 meters from where the Holy Father was seated, were coordinated with a setting of the Te Deum performed by the orchestra and choir of the National Academy of St. Cecilia.

The fireworks corresponded to the verses of the Church's ancient hymn of thanksgiving and praise. When the hymn spoke of the “white-robed army of martyrs” the fireworks showered the façade in white, followed by red, the color of martyrdom. And as the hymn built toward its crescendo — “Enthroned at God's right hand in the glory of the Father, you will come in judgment” — the explosion of fire and light around the central statue of Christ the King atop the façade created a powerful biblical image of the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory (cf. Matthew 24:30).

“This night will conclude a period of great preparation, spiritual and in part material, which characterizes our vigil,” said Cardinal Virgilio Noè, archpriest of St. Peter's and responsible for the restoration. “One desires that everything would be reordered and renewed, everything made beautiful for the Lord who is coming.”

“The entrance to the church of St. Peter's is adorned with great beauty,” he continued, quoting Paolino da Nola, a fifth-century bishop and poet. “The sensation of beauty which the eyes contemplate, while still outside the basilica, prepares the spirit for contemplation of the sacred mysteries which are celebrated inside.”

In his address the Holy Father spoke of the Jubilee as “already imminent” — Cardinal Noè gave the exact figure of 85 days. “The works of restoration remind us that every believer, each one of us, is called to a continual conversion and a courageous amendment of life to be able to meet Christ in a profound manner and to benefit fully from the fruits of the Holy Year,” the Pope said.

While the spiritual significance of the basilica was emphasized at the blessing ceremony, the staggering material aspects of the restoration were highlighted in special television documentaries made for the occasion. The stone façade is 7000 square meters, approximately the size of a soccer field. Thousands upon thousands of detailed photographs were taken of the façade, so that it could be studied inch by inch. The photographs now form a comprehensive computer database that will allow future work to be done with much greater ease. Detailed analysis of the stone, including the use of x-rays and microscopes, revealed the wear of time, and allowed for cleaning and enhancing according to the original design. The stone was cleaned by using high pressure water, air and carbon dust – a combination that cleans without damaging the stone, as sandblasting would do, for example.

The restorers made a surprising discovery that the original plans of the Carlo Maderno, the architect of the 17th century façade, had called for the stone to be painted. So the restoration brings out more clearly the use of color, and the façade now appears much brighter, and there are different shades of color.

The atrium of the vestibule of St. Peter's is also under restoration, including the ceiling which contains gilded scenes from the life of St. Peter. The scaffolding on that project is now coming down. St. Peter's will be scaffolding-free and more beautiful than it has been for centuries when the Jubilee Year opens.

Both the Italian President, Carlo Ciampi, and the Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, attended the blessing ceremony. Also in attendance were officials from Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, an Italian oil company, which paid the restoration's $6 million cost and donated millions of man-hours of labor from its own workers.