Turning visitors into pilgrims


The new Saint Peter’s Basilica is 500 years old this year — or more specifically, it is five centuries since the cornerstone was laid.

The basilica was not finished until 1626, but the key decision — to raze the first St. Peter’s, built over the tomb of the Apostle Peter in the fourth century — was taken in 1506. Over one thousand years old, the first St. Peter’s had fallen into serious disrepair, and so Pope Julius II gave the order to build the new one, which, at only 500, is not even half as old as the original.

On this current visit, I was in St. Peter’s every morning for Holy Mass. During the five years I lived here I was likely here thrice a week to offer Mass, to go to confession, to guide a group of pilgrims, or simply to stop in and pray. It never became routine. It never failed to impress or inspire.

Impressive it no doubt is. The sheer enormity of it could overwhelm, but the genius of the art and architecture ensures that it does not. The architects and artists who designed, constructed and decorated it were the greatest not only of their generation, but of any: Raphael, Bramante, Sangallo, Maderno and Bernini, whose colonnade made St. Peter’s Square the visual centre of global Christianity. Michelangelo did not live to see the cupola he painstakingly designed; it took him several years just to complete the magnificent scale model the engineers and builders later followed.

Yet as impressive as St. Peter’s remains, more important is its ability to inspire — literally, to fill its visitors with the Spirit. It turns visitors into pilgrims. Tourists enter St. Peter’s — it remains free to all who wish to enter — with heads thrown back, eyes elevated, mouths agape. For many, it is not long before those same heads are bowed, the eyes closed in meditation, lips murmuring prayers. It is a place where the divine is tangible, which is to say that it remains a sacramental place.

Yet as impressive as St. Peter’s remains, more important is its ability to inspire — literally, to fill its visitors with the Spirit. It turns visitors into pilgrims.

My favourite time in St. Peter’s in the first hour of the day, when dozens of priests offer Mass on the many altars, and pilgrims from all over the world wait for a priest who is celebrating Mass in Italian, English, French, Spanish, or many other languages besides, including Latin. At that time, it becomes clear what sets St. Peter’s apart from the pyramids, the Parthenon, or the Palace of Versailles. It does not mark a place where something important once happened. It is a place built for the same purpose for which it is used today — the worship of God.

Visitors from the seventh or 17th century would be surprised at how the basilica looks — electricity makes rather a difference — but not at what is being done. Masses offered, confessions heard, prayers prayed. They would know where to find the tomb of St. Peter, under the principal altar, though they would not know that archaeology has now confirmed what the tradition held — namely that Peter was buried here. The tombs of St. Pius X or Blessed John XXIII would be new for them, but that a church should be adorned with new saints would not be a surprise at all. It remains now what it was from the beginning.

The building of the new St. Peter’s was not untouched by the ecclesiastical abuses and polemics of the 16th century. Yet the grand church itself rose above such disputes to become a formidable witness to the faith.

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity come down to two arguments,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger some 20 years ago. “Namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.”

Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, currently presides over this church, which more than any other adorns the holiness of St. Peter and the other saints buried there with the beauty of artistic genius. And 500 years from now, as it closes in on the age of its venerable predecessor, it will be bearing witness still.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Turning visitors into pilgrims." National Post, (Canada) May 11, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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