A message from Father Nick 60

Dome of St Peter’s Basilica – (brittanica.com)

St Peter’s (3) “Why did you doubt?”

A memory comes back of Holy Saturday night in St Peter’s. As the congregation waits in darkness for a new year’s Easter Vigil to begin, the only sound is one of whispering – in every language of the world it seems. When the lights are illumined with dazzling force, everyone looks up, and a line of giant letters stands out in sudden clarity around the base of the enormous dome: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram…” “You are Peter, and on this rock…”

Far below the dome, at the foot of the altar, is the so-called “confession”, an open crypt which recalls Peter’s confession of faith and his ultimate acceptance of martyrdom. Bishops come here to pray when they make their visit to the pope (their ad limina: “to the threshold” of the apostles). And every pallium for the world’s metropolitan archbishops is left here for a time before being conferred.

Four great piers support the famous dome, each with a statue relating to the “relics” kept near Peter’s tomb: St Helen for part of the true cross; Veronica for her veil; the Centurion Longinus for the lance with which he pierced Christ’s side; and Andrew, Peter’s brother for a piece of his skull which has now been returned to Greece. Whether these relics are genuine or not, they remind us of the real cost of faith behind such opulence.

Bernini’s glory (visit-vaticancity.com)

There is a crowning glory to the scene. At the very end of the basilica, in a window of fine alabaster, the Holy Spirit as a dove shines through an avalanche of clouds and golden rays. Here architecture, sculpture, shafts of light, combine in baroque splendour. As the glory cascades into the basilica, it incorporates another symbol: St Peter’s “chair” – or “cathedra” (from which our word cathedral comes). Four great Fathers of the Church carry this great symbol (Ambrose and Augustine from the West; Athanasius and John Chrysostom from the East).

Pope Benedict XVI described the chair as “a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and charity.”

Gian Lorenzo Bernini produced this final great statement of the basilica’s art, and it seems somehow appropriate that his work too is the first impression many pilgrims have of St Peter’s. He designed the colonnades reaching out like an embrace on either side of the piazza. They are of course a sign of welcome – “the maternal arms of Mother Church.”.

Colonnade of St Peter’s Basilica (pinterest.com)