Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Treasures of Saint Peter's Basilica

For the next several days, it'll be lots of Saint Peter's for our group of sabbaticant (sabbaticating?) priests.

Yesterday afternoon, it was a guided tour of the basilica; this morning, it was Holy Mass. This afternoon, it will be a tour of the excavations. 

Let's start there with Mass this morning.

If you've ever visited the basilica, chances are, you were accompanied by thousands of fellow pilgrims and tourists.  That's one of the reasons it was built so large (and, I learned yesterday, expanded), in anticipation of ever more pilgrims. But when you come in the morning to offer Holy Mass on one of the many altars (we wondered over breakfast, afterward, just how many), the basilica is notably different: mostly empty, quiet, with just the silent gliding around of the security personnel and the cassocked servers, and the soft hum of many priests and small groups at prayer at all points on two levels. If you have a tolerance for rising early, then this can be a wonderful way to experience Rome.

Our group of priests were scheduled for Mass at an altar on the lower level of the basilica, just outside the tomb of Saint Peter. It's not the altar closest to the pope's relics -- that would be the Clementine Chapel, but that might hold 12 or so people. I had the great privilege of offering Holy Mass there some years back, with another priest of the Archdiocese and his brother. One of our group, who has spent a lot of his years in Rome, and lives here now, gave a reflection on the experience of change in the Church over the past century. We used the Roman Canon, which was perfect for the occasion.

I found myself thinking about the small casket about 20 feet in front of us which almost indisputably are the bones of the fisherman. Indisputably, because they were found, in Pope Pius XII's time, almost precisely where tradition said they were (no one had seen the casket for a very long time); and upon examination, the bones were of a man, of the right age, and they lacked feet -- which would be explained by someone who'd died on a cross and whose body was removed in haste from the cross. The bones had been wrapped, at one time, in a very sumptuous cloth, indicating they weren't those of any ordinary person; yet the location in antiquity was not a place where VIPs were buried, but common people. Moreover -- and I didn't know this till just now, as I was reading about the bones -- they were discovered in a niche that had been designed to hide the bones. Whose bones would the Christians of those years have treated in this way?

Oh, and I forgot to mention: the grave was marked: Petros eni: "Peter is inside."

Now think: if those are Peter's bones (and I am not sure what more evidence one might want), then that means:

Peter existed; and his story is essentially true. I.e., he traveled from Galilee to Rome, and died a horrible death. Why? Because he announced the Son God, became man, who died and rose. 

Then it dawned on me. The apostles themselves -- their existence, and the traces they left, are among the best proof anyone could ask for of who Jesus is and what he did. People have claimed that Jesus never existed; or that he never claimed what he claimed; or that he never rose from the dead.

Peter's bones are compelling proof that all these claims are false; and of the truth of Jesus Christ!

As Saint John Chrysostom (who's remains are also in the basilica, upstairs) pointed out, the apostles lives are inexplicable unless they are telling the truth. Jesus didn't rise? Why would they die for a lie? And how did they find the courage to say and do what they did? In short, not only might we ask, how do you explain Jesus, we ask, how do you explain the apostles? That is, actually, a harder question, because if you explain Jesus as a madman or a deceiver, you still have to wonder why the apostles followed him...

And now it hits me -- here is where the crucifixion is, if you will permit me to say it, pure genius. 

Suppose the Lord's plan was to come, do, teach, and then either die a natural death, or else ascend to heaven (as Islam claims Mohammed did). Neat and tidy, right? History is full of such great teachers, and you can still visit their tombs. Under these conditions, it's not hard to see why such figures would have disciples, and why their disciples would be devoted. 

But only Christianity makes these claims: our great leader was (a) God all-powerful and (b) he was humiliatingly executed by his enemies, and we witnessed his bodily resurrection.

If the disciples of Buddha or Mohammed were ever tormented for their devotion, they would say something like, we are willing to die for the purity of his teaching or his life. 

But when the apostles were tried, harassed, and ultimately killed for Him, they went to their deaths for what the unbeliever claims was either a lie or a delusion. And if the latter, then the unbeliever is claiming that not just one or two people imagined they saw a dead man alive again in the flesh, but hundreds of people. And all these insane people managed, nevertheless, to be convincing enough to gather untold thousands of disciples in the years immediately following.

Think about that! Even without any trace of delusion or madness, what the first Christians asked people to believe was a hard-sell. Virgin birth? God in human flesh? Crucified -- and rose again?

I've met deluded people. People who are deluded are often deluded in varying ways. Sometimes they can fool you; but not all that often, and not for long. What do you think? It seems to me that most of the time, people who are "off" aren't trying to appear sane -- it doesn't seem to occur to them, which is why we often take note of those chilling people who are both "off" yet somehow manage to erect a vast edifice of rationality. It's incredible to think that not just one or two, but a number of deluded people could all manage to persuade lots and lots of people of all this. What's more, deluded people do often come to their senses -- yet there is no trace of a story that any of the Apostles recanted their claim of the resurrection.

Well, of course, those thoughts began at Holy Mass but came to more as I sat here writing these thoughts. 

After Mass, we didn't linger in that chapel, as another group was waiting for its turn. And we had more to do this morning. Back up the Janiculum Hill to the residence -- "the casa" -- for breakfast, then another two hour session on art and architecture with our guide, Doctor Elizabeth Lev, who -- I confess -- I was not familiar with until this week, but after yesterday and today, I'm a huge fan.

She gave us a marvelous tour of the basilica yesterday afternoon, spending at least 90 minutes, and while my legs were a bit tired, my mind and soul were eager to soak up more.

Some recollections:

> A porphyry stone, laid in the floor of the basilica near the main door, that had been in the original basilica built by Constantine, on which Charlemagne knelt in AD 800 when he was crowned by the pope.

> A set of eight pillars that had also been in the old basilica, given by Constantine himself, that were used as the rood screen; now they are located in the four balconies that look down on the main altar. And their distinctive curvy design explains why Bernini used that same corkscrew shape in the pillars of the baldacchino he erected over the altar.

> The original plan for the basilica was to have it be much more square, thus the dome would be even more impressive, both externally and internally. She pointed out a clear delineation in the nave where the facade was originally planned to be, by Michelangelo. Then, when it became clear the building would need to be much larger, it was extended forward to what we have now.

> We spent time looking closely at the baldacchino, and how, despite being cast in bronze, it shows so much movement, even with tassels seemingly catching the breeze. Dr. Lev's point was that Bernini wanted to convey the presence and work of the Holy Spirit...

> Which, of course, is most dramatic in the glorious shrine of the Chair of Peter in the apse, where he punched a hole and installed an alabaster window depicting the Holy Ghost as the dove; and this was integrated with bronze, stone and paint to show the Paraclete's work in the church. Meanwhile, you also have the Chair (which contains relics of Saint Peter's own chair) which is supported and influenced, in a special way, by the Holy Spirit.

> The famous statue of Peter, to one side, whose foot has been venerated so much the toes are worn away, presents Peter not as a ruler, but as a philosopher.

And so much more; too much to recount. (And sorry about no pictures, but my iPad was dead; in any case, everything I'm mentioning can easily be found online.)

Yesterday and this morning, we had wonderful lectures in the roots and flowering of the Renaissance. She offered a persuasive counterpoint to the frequent explanation, that what was being "reborn" was the glories of the pagan world which Christianity had overzealously squelched or covered over. Instead, her argument is that the real roots of Renaissance art is a flowering of skill and interest in discovering God's work in the human experience. So where early Christian art tended to emphasize the majesty of God and the completion of his work in Christ and his Church, the new interest was on showing how God acts in and through human situations; and so the art pursues realism and naturalism as it had never done before.

We just finished our session, and I'm completing this post which I began after breakfast. I hope this serves to illustrate once again the value of this sabbatical, not just for me; but, please God, for all those whom I was called to serve as a priest. Our Lord told Peter on one occasion that the wise and prudent steward brings out treasures both old and new. I think that's what priests are called to do, in sharing the treasures of our Faith -- using "treasure" in the broadest sense. So it's appropriate to become better acquainted with some of those treasures, since the store is vastly greater than we realize.

1 comment:

Shouting Thomas said...

Hope to make the trip to Rome soon!

If the Pope will see me, I'll sing Sinner Blues for him!