Europe in January 2017 – The Ninth Day

Today, dear reader, your intrepid travellers set out to ‘fill in the gaps’. You may remember that on Sunday, after arriving in Rome from Spain, we visited the Maria Maggiore, the Papal Basilica that is just a couple of blocks away from where we are staying. Well today, we set off to visit the other Papal Basilicas that are within the City of Rome.

The Portico of the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, featuring the Statue of St Paul

Our first stop was Basilica Papale di San Paulo fuori le Mura, St Paul outside the Walls. Our journey required this intrepid traveller to experience the Rome Metro for the first time which, while similar to that of Madrid, doesn’t appear to be extensive. That being said, the trains were clean on the insider, the stations were easily accessible, and the trains were regular.

Alighting at the Metro station that bears the name of the Basilica, we entered into what was, for me at least, the most beautiful of the three churches we visited today. It was large, broad, had clean architectural lines, and was very light, both in the colour of the interior, and the way in which natural and artificial light are combined so that the building is easy to be in. The famous portico at the front of the Basilica, in which stands a statue of St Paul, is a powerful space. It is and feels like a threshold space, the kind of space that allows the person to transition from ‘the world’ to a place a prayer simply by walking across the covered walkways, or through the paths in the manicured lawns.

The interior of the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, featuring the tabernacle that stands over the tomb of St Paul.

There were two features of the Basilica that particularly struck me: firstly, was the portraits of all the popes that run around above the columns of the Basilica (it was interesting, I thought, that only the current occupant of the Chair of St Peter has a light especially focussed on him). There’s a profound sense of history and continuity to be found in a feature like this; there is one place, the history of the Church stretches back to the very beginning in pictorial form. It can be hard to forget that the believer who enters a place like this Basilica is part of something that is, ultimately, beyond them and this particular point in time. It was, for this particular believer, a particular moving experience to be there.

The other feature of the Basilica I found particularly striking was the tabernacle that sits over the place that tradition believes is the burial place of St Paul (you can make it out in the centre of this photo).

Profile photo of the statue of St Paul that stands in the portico of the Basilica that bears his name, St Paul outside the Walls

With St Paul have featured so much in the transmission of the Christian faith during his time, it was a profound experience to be able to offer some prayers at his tomb, praying for the wisdom and grace to be able to continue that mission – and to inspire others to do the same.

Also of interest was the connection of the Basilica with a Benedictine foundation from the Abbey of Montecassino, and there is still a community of Benedictine monastics associated with the Basilica. Perhaps their presence was why this Basilica was my favourite of the three we visited today.

The second Basilica we intended to visit was the Archbasilica Papale del Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano, popularly referred to as St John Lateran. This should have been a relatively easy task to complete: backtracking via the Metro for a couple of stops, and then a short walk. Alas, the Metro line that we had travelled along only an hour or so before and which would see us at St John Lateran relatively promptly was closed (and remains closed to the best of my knowledge). After quick discussion as our best options from getting from one Basilica to the next, it was decided that the 5km walk was probably going to be the ‘easist’ option.

The hour’s walking was fine, provided a little exercise in the midst of our journeying; the streets we had to walk along though played havoc with my ankle. The surface varied from bitumen, to old cobblestones, to nothing, to crack concrete, and possibly some more that I didn’t take in. The hour’s walk felt like a lot longer let me tell you, but when we arrived I felt the effort was completely worth it, because I was greeted by this magnificent facade:

The face of the Basilica of St John Lateran

This is the only Archbasilica in the world, and is so title because this church building contains the Cathedra of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. This is the mother church of the Diocese of Rome and, therefore, in one sense, the mother church of the Church around the world. Every year, the liturgical calendar of the Church celebrates the dedication of this building precisely because it contains the seat of the Bishop of Rome (just as every diocese should celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of their own Cathedral Church); it is a celebration of the unity of the Church that focuses on this particular chair, and the bishop who sits therein.

The chair of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis

For that reason, because of my responsibilities in our diocesan Cathedral, I was particularly moved to enter this building, and stand before the Chair of Pope Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, and wallow (it’s the only word that truly describes it) in the wonder that is God’s Church in the world. Despite all the things we have got so patently wrong across the millennia, the Church that is the Body of Christ continues to be about what it should properly be about: the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and all the many activities in the world that flow from that proclamation.

I am going to hope and pray that the visit to “the mother church” will inspire this particular believer to focus more on the unity of the Church, and the commitment to the mission that is the very reason for its existence.

The last Basilica to be visited today should be of no surprise – there’s only one left after all! Our journey towards the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, or simply St Peter’s Basilica required another Metro trip – thankfully on one of the lines still operating – and the a walk to the Basilica, all the while trying to evade the tour guides trying to sell you their particular expertise. It was heads down and carry on until we managed to run the gauntlet.

The facade of St Peter’s Basilica as seen from the Piazza

Entering in to the huge piazza, framed by Bernini’s colonnade, was like nothing I have every experienced before. This church, this space, which has been seen so often in movies and on television screens, now opened before, the colonnades like welcoming arms sweeping up all comers. I’m not sure what I was expecting when walking into the piazza, but I was expecting that.

After a few moments to gather ourselves, and having already decided that we were going inside, your intrepid travellers joined the line leading to the expected security checkpoint. Given the sheer number of people who were in the lines, it was moving rather smoothly, with little fuss, and with a great deal of friendliness among those who were all doing the same thing. Your intrepid travellers found themselves just behind a group of clearly American college students, and in front of a family from somewhere in Australia (the accents and slang gave it away) who were speaking at length about plans for one of the daughters’ pending wedding.

Which brings me to the only negative experience of the whole day, maybe the whole trip so far. As I mentioned, we were in the line behind a group of American college students. As we got closer the the ‘pointy end’ of the line, where barricades funnelled people to the various security checkpoints, another group of American college students sauntered up and joined them, exclaiming “thanks for minding our spot”. It was all clearly planned and orchestrated, and left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. Though sorely tempted to say something, I refrained because of my new found commitment to embracing the full diversity of the Church in all its many shapes, sizes and colours.

When we finally got inside St Peter’s, the sight that greeted me was awe-inspiring. The artwork, the architecture, the age of this building (which is the ‘new’ St Peter’s) is mind boggling, and when one realises that the building was constructed without the technology that would be used today, there is a clear sense that this wasn’t just a job, a task to be performed; those involved were pushed to achieve the very best of their abilities here because of what they were working on, and the purpose for which this building would be used for many centuries to come.

The Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica

As we walked around this magnificent building, a number of experiences stand out. The first was the visit to the Chapel of the Pieta, the wondrous sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding her son as he has been brought down from the cross. It’s a sculpture I have seen and read about and studied, but nothing can prepare you for coming face to face with it. The sheer size and complexity of Michelangelo’s work brings home the very human emotion of this poignant moment. This was a mother holding her dead child. This was the act of a woman who, though she trusted in God implicitly, was caught up the very real experience of holding the son she had borne and raised and now whose lifeless body was before her. And all that is brought out of the marble by Michelangelo and made present to those who view this majestic piece.

The second experience was the ability, yet again, to spend some time in prayer in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, bringing to mind all those who have asked for my prayers, who are in need of them, and who deserve them.

St Peter enthroned within the nave of the Basilica named after him

The third experience was the sheer size of the building. Though not the Pope’s official church as Bishop of Rome (see above) it is certainly the principal church for papal liturgies and ceremonies. The size of St Peter’s compared to other churches around the world is marked on the floor of the central nave: wherever you’ve come from to visit St Peter’s there is physical reminder on the very floor you can walk on of just how minuscule your own home cathedral is when compared to his particular church building. Little doubt is left about which is the greatest.

After leaving St Peter’s itself, we meandered through some of the many gift, book and souvenir shops both within the piazza and just outside the piazza (there’s an ‘international’ border there somewhere), before catching the Metro back our apartment. The day was capped by a meal with our hosts in one of the local eateries we’ve been visiting often during recent days (the coffee is excellent!).