Basilica That Never Came to Be

My most remarkable tour of St. Peter’s was on a walk through the walls. It came about while I was studying the architects who had built the new basilica. They worked in fits and starts, between wars and political strife—and often the money ran out and the construction stopped.

One result of this financial stress was that Pope Julius II never got his gigantic monu­ment to his accomplishments. A much smaller version of it was placed in the Roman Church of San Pietro in Vincoli thirty years after his death, but Julius does not lie within it. He rests in one of the humblest tombs in St. Pe­ter’s, under a simple stone let into the floor behind the organ, buried, most economically, with his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV.


Though it was Julius who gave the main impetus to building a new St. Peter’s, some work had been done by his predecessors, and it was completed long after his death. The architect under Julius was Donato Bramante; both died before much could be done. Pope Leo X called in Raphael, but he, too, died within a few years.


Other minor artists followed, until a tough, practical man was found to carry on the work. His name was Antonio da Sangallo. He made a huge model of his idea of St. Peter’s, and this is what the church might be today, if Michel­angelo, by then a very old man, had not taken a great dislike to the model and to Sangallo, whom he accused of incompetence bordering on stupidity.

The model was abandoned and the job given to Michelangelo. He, too, died before the basilica was completed. A competent but uninspired man, Carlo Maderno, finally fin­ished the building—in a manner that would certainly have enraged Michelangelo, and Bramante, Raphael, and Sangallo, too.


Now, I knew that Sangallo’s model still existed, and in St. Peter’s. But where? I was told, very reluctantly, that I could see it. An official took me into the basilica, opened a door, and led me up some steps. Soon I found myself in a winding corridor built in­side the basilica’s thick walls. The top was arched, the walls were white, and it was ex­actly as though I were walking in the narrow alleys of some Moroccan town.


We walked a long way; then, going through a heavy wooden door with an antique lock, we came into a vast room. We were insideone of the gigantic piers that support the dome of St. Peter’s. Against one wall was a dusty model, 17 feet tall, of an organ that had never been built. We passed to yet another room. It was in total darkness. We switched on flashlights, and there, filling the room, was Sangallo’s model


It is made of wood, with joinery so perfect it left me marveling. One side of the model opened. I walked inside. I stood under the dome, its top ten feet above my head. San­gallo’s church, I thought, would have been better, at least in the interior, than the one we have. It would have had more mystery. It would have been full of nooks and crannies. That is why Michelangelo condemned it. It would be impossible, he said, to winkle out all the people at closing time.


Custodians Are No Longer Acrobats

Architects have practical minds, and after studying their work for so long, my thoughts took a practical bent as well. I wondered how this vast church was maintained. I talked to Francesco Vacchini, the man in charge of what is known, picturesquely, as the Reverend Fabric. I knew, I told him, that St. Peter’s is maintained by the sampie­trini, workmen who have been famous for generations for being like one big family.


“No longer,” he replied, sharply. “They used to live here, near the Vatican, under the shadow of their church. Now, at 5 p.m. promptly, they are off in their cars to their flats in the suburbs, for supper and television.”


The sampietrini have long amazed visitors by the acrobatic feats they perform in getting to far-off parts of St. Peter’s. But that, too, is largely a thing of the past.

“Sometimes, yes,” said Signor Vacchini. “Sometimes you can get to a spot only by swinging from a rope. But I discourage it. St. Peter’s isn’t a circus.”

I imagined the basilica would need an army of workers to maintain it.


“I have 50,” said Signor Vacchini. “Why so few?” I asked.

He spread his arms wide. “What with wages, social security, family allowances, and the rest, those few cost me 10 million lire a month.”That is only $16,000. But the Vatican is economizing. Even the number of Swiss Guards is slowly being reduced. Austerity is the keynote of Paul VI’s pontificate.


Here Popes Touch Their People’s Hearts

Besides worrying about the basilica, the chief of the sampietrini also frets about us—you and me, the visitors to St. Peter’s. “I wish people would remember this is a place of worship,” he said, “and not a tour­ist attraction. Remember, St. Peter’s is a church, not a museum.”

St. Peter’s belongs to all civilization, but, first and last, it is the pope’s church, and I have found it is the place where the popes are most at home.


Pius XII was a man of Roman courtesy. When I first met him in the Vatican Palace, he was, like other popes I’ve since met there, not quite at ease. He left me in awe, but noth­ing warmer. Yet I recall this same man in St. Peter’s. On that day, he found himself in front of tens of thousands of Italian children, come on a pilgrimage on his birthday. He took some papers from an aide, and the chil­dren settled down for a sermon.


Suddenly he put the papers aside. He looked at his young audience.

“Are you good children?” he asked them.

“Yes,” came a rather wavering answer.

“Do you say your prayers?” asked the pope.

“Yes,” came the reply, a little stronger.

“Do you eat your spinach?” he demanded.


“YES!” they answered in a delighted roar, and St. Peter’s echoed with young laughter.

Or again, in the great square in front of the basilica, I stood one night with the con­course of Romans who had come to welcome John XXIII home from a journey. The church was very dark against the night sky.


The pope appeared at his window. He talked for a while to us. Then the dome of St. Peter’s became edged with a silver glow. The pope broke off his address. He looked up.

In tones of wonder, he said, “The moon is rising. You cannot see it from down there, but I can. It is very, very beautiful.”


The glow on the dome increased. We all looked, and it was as the pope had said, a beautiful sight.


Well,” said the pope, “that means it is time for us all to go to bed. So now I am going to give you my blessing. Take it home with you: to those who could not come to­night, to those who are sick, to your children who are sleeping. Tell them that it comes from me.” He raised his right hand. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy


Coronation Ride May Prove Unsettling

A few days passed. Then an official came to my door bearing a large engraved card. I was invited to the pope’s coronation. It was early morning when I went to St. Peter’s. Suddenly trumpets sounded, and the new pope was borne in on his portable throne, looking decidedly uneasy. I was sorry for him.


Hugh O’Flaherty had introduced me to the chief of the sediari, the men who carry the platform on which the pope rides. He had said, I remembered, “For the first few times, it’s very hard on new popes. We go as steady as we can, but it makes them seasick.”


The pope was led to his throne, directly under the great bronze throne of Peter. It dwarfed Pope John, big man as he was, but it glorified his office. In terms of consum­mate art, it clearly proclaimed, “This is the 261st successor to Peter, first among the disciples of Christ. Obey him.”

The pope moved down the church, followed by the cardinals. He came to the central altar that only a pope may use, or a cardinal specially named by him to stand in his place. He celebrated Mass. He raised the Host toward the dome. He lifted his eyes. On the vast golden frieze beneath the dome were the Words in Latin, “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”

Jesus had said them, giving his leading disciple, Simon, a new name that meant “rock” in Aramaic. This name, Cephas, was later translated into Greek as Petros.


Constantine Raises a Basilica

The pope lowered the Host to the altar. He knelt. Directly below him, deep down in the bowels of the basilica, were the bones of Peter, the fisherman, whom Jesus had chosen from among all his followers.


Or were they? The fact was, at the time, nobody really knew.

Peter had come to Rome and there he had founded a church—not a church of bricks and mortar, but a group of Christians who met in each other’s homes. About 25 years later he lost his life in the first of the persecu­tions. Tradition holds that he was crucified upside down in Nero’s Circus near Vatican Hill. His body was given to his friends, and he was buried close by.

Three centuries passed, and the numbers of Christians grew—so much so that Emperor Constantine finally declared their faith law­ful. He himself died a Christian. But he was a strange man. He killed his supposedly un­faithful wife by locking her in a steam bath. So it would not appear that he was unduly impressed by the Sermon on the Mount. At all events, he raised a great temple over the place where the fisherman was thought to be buried, and this was the first St. Peter’s.


When Julius II pulled much of it down and began the church that is there today, the tomb of St. Peter was lost to view. For centuries there was no chance of knowing whether St. Peter’s bones were still there, for Pope Greg­ory I had warned that disaster would befall anyone who disturbed them. Historians thought Peter’s bones were gone, his tomb sacked long before by Saracens.

It was arranged for me to have a look at the tomb area. I went down into the crypt of St. Peter’s, and then down some more steps. Sud­denly I came upon what seemed to me a vil­lage street. There were little housefronts with pretty doors. I went into one of the houses. It was painted with bright frescoes. On a shelf was a stone urn, open, with whitened bones. The official who accompanied me stirred them absently with his finger while explain­ing where we were.

I learned that in 1939, while excavations were being made for Pius XI’s tomb, Pius XII gave orders that the digging was to be ex­tended in a search for the tomb of St. Peter. This “village” was one of the great discover­ies. The houses and simpler tombs under them dated from the first to the third centuries A.D. They proved beyond doubt that Constantine had built St. Peter’s over a cemetery.


But an even more exciting discovery was involved. A Roman presbyter named Gaius, who lived in the second and third centuries, had seen a grave memorial to St. Peter, and had mentioned it in a letter, a fragment of which has come down to us. Right under the papal altar, early in the excavations, a small ruined monument was found. This could well be the memorial Gaius had seen. At its foot was a slab like a gravestone let into the ground. The excavators raised it. They found a grave, but it was quite empty. Some bones were discovered nearby. For several years they were believed to be the bones of Peter, but anthropological study established that they were actually the bones of more than one person, including an old woman. Disappoint­ment in the Vatican was great.


Inscription Leads to a Startling Find

That would have been that, except for one obstinate and learned woman, Margherita Guarducci. She is a professor at the Univer­sity of Rome, and she deciphers ancient in­scriptions (opposite, above).


She spent six years studying the scribblings made by Christian pilgrims on two old walls above the empty grave. One graffito on the older wall, when deciphered, delivered an electrifying message: “Peter is within.” In the other wall was a recess lined with marble. To her it was clearly an ossuary, a niche for someone’s bones. Had any been found?


The professor got hold of a workman who seemed to re­member that something had been found there years ago, but he thought it was a piece of wall with a graffito. Un­daunted, she searched St. Peter’s storage rooms. There, in a box marked for graffiti, she found bones.


The bones, she learned, were indeed from the ossuary in the ancient wall. Ten years before, a monsignor, during his daily inspection of the excavations, had put the bones in a plain wooden box and deposited it in storage.


Pope Paul Resolves a Scholarly Dispute

Professor Guarducci had the bones examined by Pro­fessor Venerando Correnti, an anthropologist of the Uni­versity of Rome, who, as she puts it, “entirely bore out what could be expected for the bones found in the only niche built by Constantine in his monument to St. Peter.”


It was plain to her what had happened. When Constan­tine had erected the first St. Peter’s, he had cautiously moved the bones of the saint from his grave to this, hiding place, a few feet away, to protect them from deterioration and grave robbers.


That the bones Professor Guarducci found are those of St. Peter, she has no doubt. They are the bones of a man of 60 or 70, and in the box with them were bits of earth and shreds of purple-and-gold cloth. The age tallies with Pe­ter’s traditional age at the time of his crucifixion. Tradition says that he was buried in plain earth. And when Constan­tine had the bones removed to the niche, it would have seemed only fitting to have had them wrapped in precious purple-and-gold cloth.


Scholars disputed these conclusions; some still do. But Pope Paul VI settled the question for the Catholic world. Speaking in St. Peter’s on June 26, 1968, he announced that the bones of the saint had been found.


Today the bones are back in the niche of the tomb, hidden from public view . But the bones are not the only things the ordi­nary visitor does not see within the walls of the basilica. Indeed, some marvels are literal­ly hidden within the walls.


IN TWENTY YEARS of living in Rome, I have come to know St. Peter’s stone by stone. I have learned about the extraor­dinary men who put those stones to­gether—the Roman Emperor Constantine, Raphael, Michelangelo, and many others. As a result, I have come to look upon St. Peter’s as one of the most fascinating and beautiful monuments of Western civilization—and I suppose I have seen most of them.


When I first saw the basilica, however, I thought it somewhat boastful. St. Peter’s is, of course, the largest church in Christendom. On the floor of the nave there are bronze let­ters giving the measurements of other big churches—Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, St. Patrick’s in New York. Each is smaller, and could fit easily within St. Peter’s 163,000 square feet—St. Paul’s, for example, covers only about three-quarters that area.


Those bronze letters on the floor put me off St. Peter’s for years. It seemed to me then that a church that says, “I am bigger than these,” is like a person who says, “I am holier than thou.” The truth is that I was ignorant. One does not have to know anything about Notre Dame to enjoy it. One just walks in­side. I thought I could do the same with St. Peter’s, but I was mistaken. I think my present admiration of St. Peter’s began when I met an Irishman called Hugh O’Flaherty. He was a monsignor, and a domestic prelate to the pope. This meant he was part of what is known in the Vatican as the “papal family”—priests who are very close to the pontiff. He was six feet tall, hand­some, with graying hair, and he had a way of doing things that was all his own.


I asked the monsignor to show me the Vati­can, and with him I saw the place as few peo­ple have done, before or since. He could come and go anywhere, “in and out of any door, like a cat,” as he put it. But, for many days, he did not take me to St. Peter’s.


Then, one day, after hours of tramping palace corridors, he said, “Me boy, we need a drink.” He took me from the papal pal­ace into St. Peter’s Square . I looked thirstily at the sign of a bar down the street, but my friend turned and made for the great tawny facade of St. Peter’s. We went inside, I with a sinking heart, fearing a disserta­tion when what I wanted at the mo­ment was to quench my thirst.


Some traditions I knew: that the first basilica on this site was built over the grave of the Apostle Peter by the Em­peror Constantine; that it was conse­crated in A.D. 326. And some facts: By the early 16th cen­tury this ancient ed­ifice was so decrepit that it became necessary to demolish and replace it. The foundation stone of the new basilica was laid in 1506 by Pope Julius II, and the new church was con­secrated in 1626, on the thirteen hundredth anniversary of the original consecration.


St. Peter’s, built in the form of a Latin cross, is 700 feet long and 450 feet across the tran­sept. It can hold at least 20,000 people. The dome has an internal diameter of 137 feet, 6 inches, is nine feet thick at the base, and rises to an external height of 452 feet. Even the carved cherubs of the holy-water stoup are colossal—seven feet high.


There is only one painting in the church today; more than a hundred other pictures are now reproduced in mosaic (pages 876-7). The exterior walls are of travertine, the inter­ior pavements of colored marble.


Monsignor O’Flaherty surprised me. Not a bit of this did I hear from him. Instead, he walked straight through the enormous basilica, without giving it a glance. He went into the sacristy, then into another sacristy, and then pushed open a door. Beyond it, but still within the walls of St. Peter’s, was a typi­cal Italian cafe, with espresso machine, bot­tles, advertisements, and a tempting array of things to eat.


We ordered refreshments. I learned that as many as twenty priests at a time may cele­brate Mass in St. Peter’s, sometimes simple country priests for whom the ceremony is the climax of their lives. The cafe is for their re­laxation when the emotional experience is over. For the first time, St. Peter’s seemed to come alive to me.


The Human Side of Becoming a Pope

The next day, in the Vatican Palace, the monsignor led me into a vast chamber, deep in shadow. He moved away and disappeared into the darkness, fumbling with switches. Then suddenly the place blazed with light. I found myself in the Sistine Chapel, alone, under the stupendous ceiling by Michelangelo. I was left quite by myself for five minutes, a privilege, as my companion remarked when he rejoined me, that not even presidents and kings enjoy.


The Sistine Chapel is the place next to St. Peter’s where the conclave of cardinals is held and a new pope elected. The cardinals sit round the walls, each on his own throne. Each throne has a canopy. When the name of the new pope is announced, all but one of the car­dinals pulls a rope beside him, and his can­opy descends. Only the canopy of the new pope remains in position. He is asked if he will accept the office. If he says he will (secre­cy cloaks whether anyone has ever refused), the fisherman’s ring is slipped on his finger, and he announces his new name.

“Now come with me,” said my friend.


I followed him to a small door. We went through it and climbed a narrow staircase to a small, rather shabby room with a couch. “The new pope,” said Hugh O’Flaherty, “rests for a while on that couch. Three sets of robes are ready—large, medium, and small. He is dressed, and his red slippers are put at his feet. The clothes never really fit. Now,” he went on, “imagine yourself a pope. Your shoes pinch, your cassock is tight under the arms. Follow me once more.”

We went into an adjoining great hall. Gi­gantic shutters swung open, and then a win­dow. I walked through onto a balcony. I looked down, and beneath me lay St. Peter’s Square. I was on that central balcony in the facade of St. Peter’s from which the pope gives his first blessing.


Seat and Center of the Papal Domain

I stayed for a while, then went inside. I must have had a very solemn expression. The monsignor said with an Irish twinkle, “A pen­ny for your thoughts.” “I don’t think I had any thoughts,” I said. “It is too big to grasp.” “Let me help you,” he offered. “Come here.” We crossed the great room, which I now realized was the audience hall that runs right across St. Peter’s. In the middle of the far wall was a small window. I looked through it. All St. Peter’s lay at my feet: the great nave, the four gigantic columns of Bernini’s baldachin over the papal altar (pages 866-7), and, at the

far end, the stupendous shrine with its saints holding aloft the spectacular bronze throne of St. Peter.


“What name would you have chosen?” I was asked. “Benedict.” “Well then, Pater Sancte Benedicte,” said the monsignor, intoning the pope’s title, “all this is in your care. Every stone of it. If you want to tear it down, you can, and nobody can stop you. One pope did.” “Julius II,” I said.


“Yes,” he confirmed. “And remember that one of his reasons was that he wanted the new church to be big enough to hold his tomb, which was to be the biggest papal tomb ever seen, with huge statues honoring his earthly achievements. And that’s one key to St. Pe­ter’s. Though built to the glory of God, it is the pope’s domain. When you grasp that, everything falls into place.”

Of course, for a sixth of the people of the world, St. Peter’s is their church. It is the out­ward sign of the spiritual power of the Roman Catholic Church. Every Roman Catholic prelate and every good Catholic layman hopes to visit it and pray there. But the basilica’s special significance derives from its associa­tion with St. Peter, and he was the first pope. Each succeeding pope inherits it from him, as he does the office of the papacy.


Some time after my visit, I saw this inheri­tance passed on. A pope had died. The cardi­nals had sat under their canopies, and at last the only canopy that was not lowered shel­tered the head of a man who was the son of simple Italian peasants.


I was in St. Peter’s Square when this man made the journey from the Sistine Chapel that I had made, and I saw him stand on the balcony of St. Peter’s, where I had stood. A prelate called out in loud tones:


“I bring you glad tidings. We have a pope.” Then he said the name that the son of a peas­ant had chosen not thirty minutes before: “Johannes.”John XXIII approached the balustrade. He gave his first blessing. It was a historic moment, but I could not help noticing that John was finding difficulty in raising his right arm. I knew what had happened. John was a very portly man. Not even the biggest of the three robes had fitted, a fact which the pope later confirmed with great good humor.