By Msgr. Francis D. Kelly
The Holy Year of Mercy observance in Rome is now “picking up steam” with the advent of the good weather. Literally, millions of people will cross St. Peter’s Square and enter the Holy Door, reminded of Jesus words – “I am the gate.” (John 10:9)
Three weeks ago was the Jubilee for Youth – the biggest event so far. Some 100,000 young people came on buses from all over Europe for a three-day celebration that featured a penance service, at which Pope Francis himself sat on a plastic chair in St. Peter’s Square with many other priests and heard the confessions of the young people. They had a Christian rock concert in the Olympic stadium one evening and on Sunday attended a Mass in St. Peter’s Square where the numbers surpassed those of Easter!
Happily, Worcester Diocesan pilgrims have begun to arrive: Father Walter Riley with a group from Immaculate Conception Parish in Worcester, and Father Laurence Brault with a group from St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Upton. Father Robert Grattaroti, pastor of St. Joseph in Charlton, made a personal pilgrimage and gathered the “little flock” of Worcester Romans – three priests and two seminarians – for dinner.
Below is a meditation for the visit to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica that I hope sets the right tone for the jubilee year pilgrimage. Not all are able to make the journey to Rome, but it could be useful going through the Holy Door in St. Paul Cathedral or the other special pilgrimage churches in our diocese.
Jesus Christ is the center of the Catholic faith, as St. Peter the Apostle boldly proclaimed in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
It is not surprising then that, when one approaches the monumental setting of St. Peter’s Square and Basilica in Rome, this truth is grandly displayed. On the center top of the external facade of the basilica, there stands a giant statue of the Risen Lord Jesus, triumphant and holding the Cross on which he saved humanity, his hand lifted in blessing over all who enter this largest church in the world. In the center of the great square stands the 135-foot obelisk on which are carved the words: “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules.”
Only in the spirit of deep Christian faith can one truly appreciate the awesome structure that is St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter himself was Jesus’ chief disciple, the one to whom the Lord entrusted the continuation of his own mission: “I tell you, you are the ‘Rock’ (petras), and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Peter courageously took up his mission, as his first sermon in Jerusalem bears witness. He fulfilled Jesus’ command to him: “Strengthen your brethren” (cf. Luke 22:32). Eventually Peter came to Rome where there was already a strong Jewish community to whom he could first announce the fulfillment of their hopes in the person of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
It seems that this early Jewish-Christian community became a scapegoat used by the Emperor Nero to deflect blame for the disastrous fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64 A.D. Jews and Christians were cruelly tortured and Peter himself was crucified (upside down, at his request) in the area of the Vatican Hill. The early Christians took his relics and interred them in the existing necropolis on the Vatican Hill. A Roman priest, Gaius, put up a small wall shrine to protect the relics.
When, after centuries of persecution, Christianity became legalized in 313 A.D. by Constantine, the Emperor wished to erect a fitting monument to St. Peter. The Emperor leveled the Vatican Hill at the exact spot of Peter’s shrine and built a worthy church over it.
This first St. Peter’s Basilica understandably became a major center of worship and pilgrimage for Christians all over Europe. From the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604 A.D.), there has been an uninterrupted group of praying clergy at the basilica. In 1053 A.D., Pope Leo IX created an Archpriest and a body of Canons – priests who would be responsible for divine worship on a stable basis. This group has continued this privileged task for about 1,000 years. In 2013, I was humbled to be named to this Chapter of Canons by Pope Benedict XVI – the only American serving in this capacity.
In 1506 A.D., Pope Julius II decided to replace the Constantinian Basilica, which by his time was in disrepair and collapsing. The pope employed the greatest Renaissance geniuses – Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante and Bernini – to build a worthy replacement. The new basilica became the greatest Church in Christendom and a visible sign of Christ’s saving mission on earth and of St. Peter’s essential role in the foundation of the Church.
St. Peter’s Basilica, therefore, is not a museum, nor is it merely an extraordinary architectural achievement. It is a monument to faith. A monument that still in the 21st century proclaims to contemporary secular men and women that the greatest human endeavor is the effort to know God and his will and to embrace the salvation he has given to us through Jesus Christ. It is a salvation transmitted by his Church, of which St. Peter and his successor are Christ’s vicars.
-Msgr. Kelly, a priest of the Diocese of Worcester, is a Canon of St. Peter’s Basilica.