Saturday, July 6, 2013

St. Peter's Basilica

Yesterday was what the whole pilgrimage was building up to: visiting the tomb of St. Peter, celebrating mass there, and gaining a new appreciation for the Rock on which Christ build His Church. I am actually writing this entry from the plane on our way back to the United States because I was just too tired to write an entry last night after our great day at St. Peter's Basilica.

St. Peter's in the morning sun

To begin our day at St. Peter's we left our hotel at 6 am for the short walk over to the basilica. We celebrated an early morning mass in the crypt of the basilica surrounded by the tombs of about a dozen pontiffs, but most importantly, the tomb of St. Peter was about thirty feet behind our altar.

The tomb of Pope John Paul II

The length of the basilica

Then, every fifteen minutes or so, a small portion of our group left for the Scavi tour. This was a sacred, no-picture sort of area, so my description will have to suffice. Scavi is just Italian for excavation, and this is the tour that goes through the excavations below St. Peter's basilica. The present basilica was built in the 16th century (?) to replace the original basilica that had been built by Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine built the basilica over 1st century cemetery that our unbroken tradition held was where Peter was buried. The altar of each basilica has been located over the tomb of St. Peter, and in the 1940s they began excavations to try and find the tomb. The excavations found a tomb but it was empty. The excavations also discovered graffiti on a wall (much of the 1st century cemetery was above-ground internment buildings) referring to Peter's bones being below the tomb. They dug down and indeed found bones that we're identified as those of a man who was about 60 year olds. This indeed fits the description of Peter. DNA testing being what it was in the Roman Empire, no test can prove conclusively that these are Peter's bones of course. But the fact that we found bones of the right kind of person where 1900 years of tradition said they would be tells me that these are the bones of the first bishop of Rome.

Anyway, the Scavi tour takes you through much of the excavated cemeteries and you get to see the paintings preserved in the burial buildings, the inscriptions on the tombs, and the foundations of Constantine's basilica. Finally, you get to see the bones of St. Peter. After they were discovered and tested, they were replaced in their original location. They are located behind the wall of the Clementine chapel below the main altar, placed in a clear plastic box. You take a side door out of the beautiful Clementine chapel to enter the archeology area behind it and you see the bones through a hole in the wall. For all the beauty of the basilica, you only see the bones of the fisherman from Galilee by leaving the gold and artwork and climbing on catwalks in the dirt-filled excavation area. Somehow, that seems fitting.

In the afternoon we visited the Vatican museums. The museum was very crowded and difficult to enjoy, but on an emptier day I would have loved visiting their collection. The Vatican has a priceless collection of art and artifacts from all of world history, but the highlight was definitely walking through the Sistine Chapel where the pope is elected and Michelangelo's masterpieces cover every wall, to reflect on the beauty of the space and how the decisions made there have affected the course of the world. Again, pictures aren't allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so you'll just have to visit it yourself.

The Laocoön, a famous statue from 40-30 bc

Dinner in the evening, our last evening in Rome, was at a beautiful outdoor restaurant just outside the city with all 105 pilgrims. It was a beautiful ending to a great trip, and I already can't wait to come back again to Rome!

A parting shot of St. Peter's from the roof of our hotel 


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