St. Peter's Basilica
Text by the Seminarian Guides
North American College, Rome
The Blessed Sacrament is reserved here. According to Catholic teaching, the Eucharist, which is "confected" during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is truly the Real Presence of Jesus Christ - body, blood, soul, and divinity. This is one of the faith's central tenets; celebrating Mass is the most important thing that any priest - even the Pope himself - does.
So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.' (Jn 6:53-55)
Central altar - previously dedicated to the Apostles, Saints Simon and Jude, whose mortal remains are below the altar. John XXIII rededicated the chapel to St. Joseph, whose role in the life of the Church has been increasingly emphasized these past several centuries.
Right altar - Altar of St. Thomas, under a mosaic showing the scene of his disbelief. Under the altar are relics of Pope St. Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon for Christian worship.
Left altar - Altar of the Crucifixion of St. Peter - ancient tradition says that he suffered martyrdom on precisely this spot, which is directly on Nero's old circus, near where the obelisk stood. The edge of the circus ran parallel to the central altar, roughly at the entrance to the present chapel. A street called Via Cornelia then separated the circus from the necropolis on the slopes of Vatican Hill.
Text above: Dicit ter tibi, Petre, Iesus: Diligis me? Cui ter, o electe, respondens ais: O Domine, tu omni nosti, tu scis quia amo te (Jn 21:17)
This was the last masterpiece of the eighty-year old Bernini. The Pontiff is kneeling and absorbed in prayer, not disturbed by the sudden appearance of Death, who raises a heavy pall and brandishes an hour-glass to indicate that time has passed. Indeed, Pope Alexander VII had asked that a coffin be placed in his bedroom because, he explained, "I will be a good Pope if I think of death."
The four allegories are: In front; Charity, Truth (foot on globe); In back; Prudence, Justice.
The allegory of Truth in this monument was originally sculpted as a naked figure (the "naked truth"), though Bernini was later asked to "cover" it with a mantle. There is a similar story about Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. When the painting was completed, the Pope's master of ceremonies, a man named Biagio of Casena, declared that the nude figures were indecent and prevailed upon the Pope to have them "clothed." In his irritation, Michelangelo painted a figure in the right hand corner, the corner that represents hell, of Midas with donkey's ears and the face of Biagio of Casena. Furious at the painter's insolence, he complained to the Pope that Michelangelo had painted him in hell and asked him to order it removed. At this, the Pope sadly replied that, since he was in hell, there was nothing he could do. If he had been in Purgatory, the Pope said, he could do something.
Notice the virtue of Truth with her foot on the globe. Her great toe is directly over Britain, represented with a thorn rising from the globe. It reflects the anguish that England's obduracy in Protestantism caused the Holy Father during his reign, when hopes of an English return to Catholicism proved disappointing.
The mosaic altarpiece was blessed at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque's canonization in 1923. She was the saint responsible for the spread of this popular devotion to Our Lord's Sacred Heart.
When St. Margaret Mary approached her spiritual director and told him that she had been visited by Our Lord, he was uncertain about her sincerity. He told her to ask Jesus, next time He appeared, to recount some of her past sins. During her next visit, somewhat puzzled, she reported the result: Our Lord had told her that He did not remember any of her sins! Then her spiritual director knew that she was telling the truth, since God's forgiveness is utter and unconditional.
At the Altar of Our Lady of the Column is an image of the Blessed Virgin that had been painted on a column in the old basilica. After Vatican II, Paul VI honored it with title of "Mater Ecclesiae" and in 1981, Pope John Paul II had a mosaic reproduction of it affixed to the external wall of the Apostolic Palace, facing the square.
St. Leo the Great was the first pope to be buried in the basilica. He is now interred under this altar with four other Popes. Note St. Peter's sword protruding from the relief.
The altarpiece portrays the meeting of Pope Leo the Great with Attila, King of the Huns, in 452, when Attila was preparing to ransack the city. Though he had been greedily anticipating the rich Roman loot, and indeed had even arranged to marry a Roman noblewoman upon his arrival, he was convinced by the Pope to circumvent Rome. Attila later recounted how he had a vision of Sts. Peter and Paul (depicted in the relief) descending from heaven with swords as Leo spoke. Indeed, Attila's abrupt retreat is an unexplained historical event to this day.
Vault of the dome - SS. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Cyril of Alexandria, and John Damascene
This biblical scene took place by the temple gate called "Beautiful" (Acts 3:1-10). This altarpiece is said to have given Lincoln his idea for the motto on the dollar bill - "Silver and gold I have none, but what I have that I give unto thee."
The allegories are of Religion and Prudence. The relief shows his canonization.
The episcopal chair that represents a bishop's teaching authority, is a notion that goes back to our Jewish roots.
As early as the third century, we have evidence of veneration to a "chair of St. Peter." A wooden throne was given to the Pope by Charles the Bald in 875, which purportedly was the very chair in which St. Peter exercised his episcopal authority in Rome. In fact, the old wooden chair seems to have fragments of a chair, older still, made of acacia wood that could be from St. Peter's times. This ancient chair is encased in the bronze throne we see today.
Figures on the altar: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine (outer figures, Doctors of the Latin Church) and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom (inner figures, Doctors of the Greek Church) represent the catholicity of the Church, the consistency of the theologians' teaching with the doctrine of the apostles, and the power and knowledge that flows from the unity of the Church symbolized by the Chair of Peter. Above the Chair are angels bearing tiara and keys, the symbol of the Pope's teaching and jurisdictional authority. Note that the Doctors do not support the chair, but the clouds representing God's own glory; that is, the Church is not dependent on men but only on the Holy Spirit.
Above the altar, the gilt hosts of angels, billowing clouds, and rays of light surround the alabaster window of Bohemian glass that is symbolically divided into twelve sections. A brilliant dove - the Holy Spirit - stands out against it, the soul of the Church that He never ceases to help and to guide.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
Catholics do not believe that the Scriptures alone contain the deposit of faith, but that it is present also in the living Tradition of the Church, preserved from error by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Scriptures themselves are the product of this living Tradition. Thus both Scripture and Tradition serve the eternal Word of God, who became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.
And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. (Jn 14:16-17)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:13)
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thes 2:15)
There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (Jn 21:25)
Concretely, this means that the bishops of the Church, unified by their communion with the Holy Father, can teach with great authority - indeed, infallibly - on matters pertaining to the faith or the moral life of the Church. This authority can be exercised in a solemn Ecumenical Council, the last two of which took place here from 1869 to 1870, and from 1962 to 1965, and which occur about once a century, or by the person of the Pope teaching in a very special manner. When the Pope teaches "ex cathedra" - literally, from the chair of his authority - regarding a matter pertaining to faith or morals, his teaching is preserved from error - it is infallible - like the teaching of an Ecumenical Council. This, too, is very rare - the last one took place in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary. An important aspect of understanding the teaching authority of the bishops and the Pope, then, is to recognize its scope and the care with which the authority is exercised. Another important aspect is to see that our Western view of human freedom is, in some ways, at odds with the Christian view of freedom. To us, freedom is the ability to do whatever we want; to Christianity, freedom is the ability to do what is good. The Church, then, in her teaching office, helps us know how to live well, and mediates the grace to do it, and thereby helps us to live as free children of God.
Thus, when we hear of the Church's teaching on moral issues like bioethics, abortion or contraception, or other issues like the doctrines of celibacy and the all-male priesthood, to name some of the more explosive issues today, it is important to understand them in this context.
This monument by Bernini on the back right of the apse, shows the Pope in the act of blessing. A skeleton of Death is writing the Pope's name on a scroll. The allegorical figures are of Justice (raising her eyes, trusting to divine justice) and Charity (child in her arms, pointing to dead Pope). Even the bees, representative of the Pope's Barberini family, are lost and disoriented.
This monument on the left is by Guglielmo della Porta. This Pope convoked the epochal Council of Trent in 1547 and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Present are allegories of Justice and Prudence, likenesses of the Pope's beautiful sister Julia and his mother. At first, the figure of Justice was naked; Bernini was later ordered to cover her. Tablets recall the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854.
Founders of Religious Orders: right, St. Francis de Sales, St. Dominic; left, St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Alphonsus of Liguori
Text above: O Pastor Ecclesiae, tu omnes Christi pascis agnos et oves (O Pastor of the Church, you feed all Christ's lambs and sheep.)
Tabitha was the woman of Jaffa. (Acts 9:36-42)
The Pontiff is enthroned beside allegorical figures of Clemency and Beneficence. Relief shows the opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee of 1675.
This mosaic is after a painting by Barbieri. The altar contains relics of St. Petronilla, who was martyred for refusing to sacrifice her virginity by marrying a nobleman named Flaccus. Her relics were removed from the Catacombs of Domitilla in 750, and transferred into the Chapel of the Kings of France, Pepin and Charlemagne, in the old basilica.
Petronilla was the legendary daughter of St. Peter, and France - traditionally called the "eldest daughter of Holy Mother Church" - has long had a special devotion to her. To this day, the French community gathers at this altar on May 31st to venerate the saint.
The mosaic altarpiece is a reproduction of a painting by Guido Reni.
This famous monument is by Canova. The Pope's figure is surrounded by a solemn statue of Religion, whose one hand touches the sarcophagus while the other holds the Cross, the instrument of our salvation. Also present is the Genius of Death, calmly and languidly extinguishing the torch of life. The sarcophagus is decorated with figures of Charity and Hope. Two splendid crouching lions guard the tomb, taking turns sleeping.
The Pope is shown kneeling in prayer, a prayerful and generous man. In 1763, in fact, he gave all his fortune to help the poor in the Latium region when a severe famine struck.
Confession is available here during most of the hours that the church is open. God is able to forgive sins without confession. But in the Bible, and in the lengthy tradition of Christianity, confession to the Church and her absolution - done in the person of the priest, who represents the Church and acts in the person of Christ - is God's own preference. It is presumptuous to spurn the means that God has given us for the communication of his grace and his forgiveness. Even the Pope hears confessions, usually on Good Friday, and it is never announced beforehand.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:21-23)
This area held the sessions of the First Vatican Council, in which about seven hundred Fathers took part, and which was opened by Pius IX on 8 December 1869. Of particular note, the Council proclaimed the Dogma of Papal Infallibility.
The Council was abruptly interrupted on July 18, 1870 when Rome was taken by the Italian army. The Council was not officially concluded, however, until October 11, 1962, when the Second Vatican Council opened!
St. Wenceslas was the King of Bohemia, the mosaic of his martyrdom. Two oval portraits of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, patrons of Europe, are on either side of altar.
Transept of Saints Processus and Martinian
These saints were two Roman martyrs who were wardens of St. Peter in the Mamertine prison and whom he converted and baptized. Their relics are in the porphyry urn under the altar. The mosaic above the altar depicts their martyrdom.
Statues of founders of religious orders: St. Bruno, St. Frances Cabrini
Text above: O Petrus, dixisti : Tu es Christus, filius Dei vivi. Ait Iesus : Beatus es Simon Bar Iona : quia caro, et sanguis non relevavit tibi. (Mt 16:16-17)