As was said previously, we may regard Saint Peter’s Basilica as the most famous Catholic church in the world. It is one of the four so called “major Basilicas,” all of them in Rome. There is very little space here to express how much this church means to Catholics around the world, but we have also to remember that there are people that are not even religious and cherish the memory of a visit to Saint Peter. Why? There are several reasons.
One is that it is a truly monumental church and, with its peculiar dome by Michelangelo, it cannot be easily forgotten. Another one is that for many, it is the image of the Catholic Church. When there is a news report regarding the Pope, the Church, or anything relating to the Catholic faith, you may be sure that Saint Peter’s Basilica will be shown. But for Catholics, of course, it is much more than that: it is the place where Saint Peter, the first Pope, was martyred and where we can pray before his remains.
This Basilica, like the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, was a project of Constantine, a key figure for Christianity. The church was completed in 329. The Basilica was very important in medieval times, the focus of pilgrimages to Rome to visit the city of martyrs and great saints.
No one can forget what Jesus himself told Peter: “Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam” (“You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church.”) Pilgrims saw Peter in all subsequent Popes: these were successors of the first Pope. Pilgrims go to Rome because they want videre Petrum (“to see Peter”). Pope Paul VI reflected on this during an audience on July 13, 1966: “Why did you come? We know: to see the Pope. But why do you want to see the Pope? Because he is the Vicar of Christ and is the Head of the Church. So you want to have some reflected vision of Christ and some direct vision of the Church.”
In 1506, Pope Julius II started the works to renovate the Basilica, indeed to rebuild it. And it will take almost a century to finish. Some of the most important artists of the time (and of all time, in reality) as Donato Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo the younger, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Domenico Fontana, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno worked in this basilica. And we cannot forget the huge contribution given by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, when he built the main altar – the “Papal Altar” we call it – and also the general layout of the Basilica. Also from Bernini are the colonnades that surround Saint Peter’s Square, one of the most fascinating squares in the whole world.
Let us remember a very important fact. In front of Saint Peter’s Basilica and square there were many buildings and houses until 1936, what we call the “spina di Borgo.” The Popes wanted to demolish this area but it was never possible until the 1930s, when the work commenced. The job was finished in 1950 for the Jubilee. The Baroque effect of the Basilica and of the square was much greater before than now, with the Via della Conciliazione. This was because before, the Basilica and square would appear suddenly after one had passed through this very crowded and popular area. But now, you can see Saint Peter’s from afar.
A great Italian actor, on of the greatest, called Alberto Sordi, described the area before the demolition: “I was four when I saw St Peter’s for the first time and it was precisely for the Jubilee of 1925. I was with my father, we came from Trastevere, where I was born in Via San Cosimato and where I lived with my family. We arrived along the alleys, which will be then destroyed, of Borgo Pio: a mass of huts, small squares, little streets. Then, behind the last wall of a house that opened like a curtain, I saw this huge square. Bernini’s colonnade, the dome. A coup de theatre to remain open-mouthed. Here it is, what I remember most of that Jubilee was this surprise” (“Interviewed by Roberto Rotondo” for the magazine 30giorni).
The great affection of Romans for Saint Peter’s Basilica is evident and palpable, not only because it is a church of records, but also because it is at the core of their Catholic identity. Yes, you may visit to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, or to participate in one of the countless Masses that are celebrated there every day. But most of all Saint Peter’s Basilica is a place where all feel they belong and are welcomed, a place that was there almost from the beginning of our Christian pilgrimage and which we know will be there until the end.