May 15, 2000

Jubilee Rome, Part II

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 3: May 2000

Jubilee Rome, Part II

St. Peter’s

(Part II of V)


by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

The four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome are St. Peter’s, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major. They hold major significance in the celebration of a jubilee both because of the ceremonies that take place in them and the indulgences granted to pilgrims who visit them during this designated time. They also each contain a Holy Door for use, with great ceremonial purpose and religious symbolism, in a Holy Year.

Holy gates and doors can be found throughout much of Scripture, but the first time on record that an actual door was designated for symbolic purposes was at St. John Lateran for the Jubilee of 1423. And it was Pope Alexander VI who first seized upon that symbolism and introduced it as a tradition to inaugurate the Holy Year. On Christmas Eve of 1499, at the dawn of a new century, the pope ceremoniously entered the newly created door on the right side of the portico of St. Peter’s along with a solemn procession of cardinals. Church bells rang out, the choir sang Psalm 118 ("This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it." Ps 118:20) and the pope struck the Holy Door with an ornate hammer. When opened, he paused at the threshold to pray and then crossed over, blessing the excited crowd that was rushing to cross the same path. Just as he opened this door at St. Peter’s, three other cardinal-legates were opening such designated doors in similar ceremonies at the other three basilicas.

A wider door

Pope John Paul II explains in his Bull of Indiction, The Mystery of the Incarnation, that the Holy Door "evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish." He recalls that when Jesus said "I am the door" (Jn 10:7), he was making it clear to us that no one can come to the Father except through him. "There is only one way that opens wide the entrance into the life of communion with God: this is Jesus, the one and absolute way to salvation…To focus upon the door is to recall the responsibility of every believer to cross its threshold. To pass through that door means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord… It is a decision which presumes freedom to choose and also the courage to leave something behind, in the knowledge that what is gained is divine life (Mt 13:44-46)."

In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Holy Father makes a finer point of what we need to turn from in order to move on. He states that the Holy Door of this Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 "should be symbolically wider than those of previous Jubilees, because humanity, upon reaching this goal, will leave behind not just a century but a millennium. It is fitting that the Church should make this passage with a clear awareness of what has happened to her during the last ten centuries." The pope is the first to pass through this Holy Door, and the last to close it again at the end of the Holy Year, giving life to the prophecy of Isaiah: "And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" (Is 22:22).

St. Peter’s Basilica

From the time St. Peter was crucified upside down on Vatican Hill around 64-67 A.D., his site of martyrdom was kept sacred and venerated by the earliest Christians. Pope Anacletus (ca. 79-91) first built a monument over his tomb within 20 years after the Apostle’s crucifixion. In 320, the converted Christian emperor Constantine began building the first basilica on that site and erected an altar above the grave so that the pope could offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass over the tomb of St. Peter. The succeeding pope, Sylvester I (314-335), consecrated the basilica on November 18, 326, though work continued on it for about 10 more years.

Well over a thousand years later, the old St. Peter’s had crumbled considerably and Pope Julius II (1503-1513) decided that a new basilica was needed. He laid the first stone in 1506, placing Donato Bramante in charge of its design. Over the next 108 years, responsibility for the design and construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica changed hands from one master artist to another upon death, including Raphael and Michelangelo. The basilica was completed by Carlo Maderno in 1614. The new St. Peter’s was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) on November 18, 1626, on the 1300th anniversary of its original consecration.

Above the entrance to St. Peter’s is the Benediction Loggia, the balcony from which the pope imparts his Christmas and Easter blessings urbi et orbi, to the city and the world. When a new pope is elected by the College of Cardinals, it is first announced to the world from this balcony. Beneath that is the portico with five entrances and richly decorated doors, each symbolic of various events of history, both of the life of Christ and the Church. The central bronze doors, from the original basilica, depict Jesus and his Mother, and scenes from the lives and martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul. The door on the far left is known as the "Door of Death" for its depiction of the deaths of the Blessed Virgin, Jesus Christ, and Pope John XXIII. Next to it is the "Door of Evil and Good" with various scenes of martyrdom, the defeat of heresy through the preaching of St. Augustine, and a commemoration of the Second Vatican Council with both John XXIII and Paul VI present. On the right is the "Door of the Sacraments" honoring the grace present in all the sacraments.

Panels show forgiveness

The last door on the right is the designated Holy Door, with panels that speak of the great and extraordinary graces of forgiveness, pardon and redemption historically associated with the Holy Year. The artwork on these panels covers the fall from grace of Adam and Eve, then the Annunciation, the baptism of Jesus, and his life, public ministry and miracles, ending with the conversion of St. Paul. On the left of the Holy Door is the inscription of Boniface VIII’s declaration of the first Holy Year.

Above the main doorway are pieces of the famous mosaic "Navicella" by Giotto, recovered from the old basilica. It depicts the Apostles in their storm-tossed ship and Christ approaching them on the water, rescuing the sinking Peter. Nearby is the relief by Ambrogio Buonvicino of Christ giving the keys to Peter.

"Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This inscription, from Matthew 16:19, is engraved along the right wall of the great nave inside the basilica. The pages of Scripture come alive on this spot where they have been – and are still being – fulfilled. "I have prayed for you, O Peter, that your faith may never fail" reads the inscription along the left wall of the nave, quoting the words of Christ from Luke 22:32. "You in turn must strengthen your brothers." The sense of majesty here is breathtaking. The beginning of the Catholic Church, her history and her saints, the solemnity and grandeur of her worship and liturgy, are all here in one magnificent presentation.

Awesome impact

No matter how many times you visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the impact is always awesome. The central focus is the splendid papal altar under a great baldachin, and before it the open confession, or sunken shrine, holding the relics of St. Peter. Beyond that, overlooking the vast basilica, is the glorious, golden Holy Spirit window. After catching your breath at this scene you beheld just as you stepped inside, look down. In front of the center doors in the floor is a large, red porphyry disk on which Charlemagne knelt on Christmas in the year 800 to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. At least 20 other emperors have been crowned on this same spot over the centuries.

Michelangelo’s Pieta, in the side chapel to the right, is a testament to the tender and abiding love of the Blessed Mother for her son, cradling his perfect body taken down from the cross. Michelangelo created this masterpiece when he was only 25 years old, and when he overheard admirers arguing about its creator, he hastened to engrave his name on the band that wraps across the breast of Our Lady. It is his only signed work. After an attack on it in 1972 by a madman wielding a hammer, the work was repaired and secured permanently behind glass.

Reverential setting

Approaching the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, it is most important to observe the silence requested by the sign posted before it, which, regrettably, many tourists ignore, along with the ‘no photography’ sign. In this exquisite and reverential setting, Eucharistic Adoration is taking place at all times that the basilica is open. The gilded bronze tabernacle on the altar was designed by Bernini, as were the two adoring angels on either side. The two spiral columns on the altar were brought here from the altar over St. Peter’s tomb in the old basilica. Such symbolism carries outside the chapel in the cupola, the dome just above, which honors the "Mystery of the Eucharist" with pendentives bearing Aaron, Elijah, the original priest-king Melchizedek, and another high priest celebrating the Blessed Sacrament in this union of Old Testament and its fulfillment in the New.

St. Peter’s has many monuments to the missionary and ecumenical efforts of the Church, issues which were directly addressed by the Second Vatican Council and emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his writings in preparation for the Great Jubilee. This is a good time to take a closer look at those monuments. The tomb of Gregory XVI, for one, shows a relief on the urn recalling Gregory’s work to advance Catholic missions. The kneeling figures represent people of other nations coming into the faith as a result of that mission work. Near this is an altar dedicated to St. Basil, one of the great orators of Christianity and a giant of the early Church. He is celebrated for his great skills in preaching against heresy and defeating the Arian heresy in the Byzantine East. And under the altar here is the body of St. Josaphat Kuncewycz, another great patron of the effort to unify the Eastern Church with Rome and who suffered martyrdom as a result. With the emphasis the Holy Father has placed on unity in the Church in the Great Jubilee, these saints should be invoked for their intercession.

Monuments to ecumenism

The next space, the right transept of St. Peter’s Basilica, is where Vatican Council I was held in 1869-70. Inscribed across the wall is the passage from Matthew 16 "O Peter, you said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered, ‘Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you’." Within this transept are more altars dedicated to those who spread Christianity through parts of Europe, like St. Anthony Claret, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and Sts. Vladimir and Olga. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II wrote "With the fall of the great anti-Christian systems in Europe, first of Nazism and then of Communism, there is urgent need to bring once more the liberating message of the Gospel to the men and women of Europe." These monuments might provide a prayerful moment for the intercession of these great saints.

Chair of Peter

In the domed apse, the Cathedra Petri, or Chair of Peter, is suspended as a monument to the pope’s teaching office. In 1666, Bernini crafted the gilded bronze chair and this glorious setting for it, surrounded by four angels and four Church Fathers: Sts. Ambrose and Augustine, representing the Western Church, and Sts. Athanasius and John Chrysostom, representing the Eastern Church. Bernini created the Baroque window sculpture above it as a majestic monument to the primacy of the Seat of Peter, watched over and illumined by the Holy Spirit.

Only the pope or a cardinal he designates may celebrate Mass at the papal altar. It stands before the confession of St. Peter (the Latin term confessio refers to the grave of a martyr who, in death, confessed his faith), the splendid shrine Maderno constructed with an elaborate descent from the papal altar perpetually lit by 89 bronze oil lamps. Highlighted in the center (viewed from the Vatican grottoes below the basilica level), in the Niche of the Pallia, is an ornate, silver box. Many viewing it believe it to be the remains of St. Peter, but it actually holds the pallia, or special woolen stoles, the pope bestows on the newly appointed metropolitan archbishops at a ceremony on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. A Byzantine mosaic of Christ as "Pantocrator" watches over the case, the only item from the old St. Peter’s that remains in its original location. Directly under this niche is St. Peter’s tomb.

Following a straight line up from this resting place of St. Peter, soaring high above the altar of his successor, is the spectacular dome reaching to a pinnacle revealing God the Father bending with arms outstretched over the Church. The inscription running along the base of the dome translates: "Thus, one faith shines in the world, thus, one priesthood arises." Michelangelo had this symbolism in mind, this vertical glimpse of the entire Church, when he designed it, though he did not live to see it completed. For all of his labors, Michelangelo accepted no payment, declaring that his work was done for "the glory of God and for the salvation of my own soul."

Saints’ Relics in the Basilica

The four Evangelists sit at the corners of the structure holding the dome. Beneath them are monuments to the most precious relics within the basilica and the saints identified with them. St. Helen (Constantine’s mother) recovered a piece of the true cross of Christ and brought it to Rome. It is now enclosed in one of the four pillars surrounding the papal altar, the one closest to the statue of St. Helen. Longinus the centurion pierced the side of Jesus with a lance, and only then realized the true identity of Christ. The lance was once enclosed here, but has been moved outside of Rome. The head of the Apostle Andrew, depicted here embracing his cross of martyrdom, was in St. Peter’s for centuries until Pope Paul VI bestowed the relic on the Greek Church in 1964.

Veronica wiped the face of the suffering Jesus and then discovered his sacred image imprinted there. Veronica’s Veil was brought to St. Peter’s, and from the early 12th century, pilgrims maintained a great devotion to it as their encounter with the likeness of Christ, a vision which could only be seen in Rome, or in heaven. Dante even wrote of its significance in Paradise: "My Lord Jesus Christ, true God, didst Thou who I see, So look, was this then Thy true semblance?" The veil can be viewed only during Lent while displayed on "Veronica’s pier," on the balcony above her statue. At other times, it is secured inside the niche on that balcony.

The seated bronze statue of St. Peter nearby in the central nave holds the two keys given him by Christ, to bind and to loosen, to open and close the kingdom of heaven. So many pilgrims have kissed the extended right foot for so many centuries now that the bronze is worn thin and quite shiny. In the left transept, the inscription along the high wall translates: "Three times Jesus says to you, Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ You answer, O chosen Peter, saying, ‘Lord, you know everything. You well know that I love you’." The awareness of Peter’s presence here, that this is a faith built upon this Apostle, that our Church is traceable back to Christ, is constant in this basilica.

The middle altar of the left transept is in honor of St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, who is much overlooked as a powerful intercessor. The Holy Father reminded us of that in Redemptoris Custos, Guardian of the Redeemer: "Inspired by the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church from the earliest centuries stressed that just as St. Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, that is, the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model."

Relics of both St. Simon and St. Jude are here beneath the altar. Nearby is the door to the Sacristy and Treasury, a museum of exquisite reliquaries, chalices, monstrances, crosses and vestments from different eras in the Church, many given as gifts by kings, emperors, and presidents. In the vestibule leading to the Sacristy stands a large statue of St. Andrew next to a marble tablet listing the popes buried in the basilica, from St. Peter to John Paul I.

At the monument to Blessed Innocent XI, a relief recalls the crucial Christian victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 under the leadership of King John Sobieski of Poland. It has been called one of the pivotal battles in all of history. In it, the combined forces of Europe turned back the advancing Ottoman Turks and decisively spared Europe further invasion by Islamic Turks. This gives pause for consideration of the issues of missionary and ecumenical efforts of the Church, which have become pressing concerns for the millennium.

Nearby, at the Chapel of the Presentation, a bronze relief depicts the Virgin and Child, and a world devastated by war. Pope Benedict XV is seen here in his monument praying for world peace. And the dome above this reveals the "Glory of Mary and the Fall of Lucifer," representing the final victory of the Woman alluded to in Scripture.


Go to Sheila Gribben Liaugminas’ page on the Women for Faith and Family website



Sheila Gribben Liaugminas