Designed principally by Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini, St Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the most prominent building in the Vatican.
It covers an area of 2.3ha and is nearly twice as long as St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (106 metres versus 186 metres). If you do the lung-burning 871-stair climb up the dome, you are rewarded with a stunning 360 degree view of Rome. On a clear day you can see to various cenotaphs of pre-Christian, Christian and post-Christian Rome in all directions.
Those layers of history are also told at St Peter’s itself. In the square we saw the 41-metre-high red granite obelisk. Originally erected around 4400 years ago at Heliopolis in Egypt, it was transplanted to Alexandria by the Emperor Augustus around the time of Christ’s birth and to Rome by the Emperor Caligula around the time of the Church’s birth.
It presided over his circus, with its bloodthirsty gladiatorial games and innumerable executions.
Pope Sixtus V moved it to its current site in 1586, during the Renaissance recovery of the classical arts, but also reflecting the Christian instinct to co-opt and baptise rather than destroy the best in the world’s cultures.
Thus a symbol of ancient paganism presiding over the martyrdom of Peter and the early Christians became a symbol of Christian respect for the aspiration of all peoples towards the heavens.
Wrapped around that obelisk is Bernini’s wonderful colonnade, representing the open arms of Christ and His Church but also, as you can see from above, key-shaped in honour of St Peter. The reference is of course to Christ’s words in the Gospel: “You are Peter … I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, so that what you bind and lose on earth will be so in heaven also” (Mt 16:13-19). These words Tu es Petrus … Tibi dabo claves regni cælorum are around the base of the cupola.
Here the first ‘pope’, papa or daddy of the Church, the first key-holder or binder and looser for Catholics, the first ‘pontiff’ or bridge-builder within the Church and between the Church and the world, Peter, was bishop. Here, too, he gave his ultimate testimony to Christ, being crucified upside-down during the reign of Nero. We are now very close to his chair and actual tomb. We have already visited the piazza, library and museum, and soon will see the scavi, crypt and tomb, the main basilica with its great artworks and dome, culminating in the Mass with the Holy Father at the high altar above the bones of Peter.
Only a small part of this extraordinary complex is a museum: the rest is living, working spaces for the government, teaching and worship of the Catholic Church. Here for 2000 years the successors of Peter have lived and conducted their business as Chief Shepherds of the world’s Catholics – nowadays 1.2 billion of them. Today we give thanks for the presiding, governing, teaching and sanctifying office of the Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome.
We should be grateful but we should not exaggerate. Sometimes Catholics have made overblown claims for papal authority. Our first reading, from what might be called the first papal encyclical, is a useful corrective (1Pet 5:1-4). Peter writes that his first task is to be a witness or martyr to Christ. The Church is built first on Christ, not Peter, the Renaissance popes or Pope Francis; built foremost not on the hierarchy but on the bed-rock of that faith Peter professed in “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. The Pope’s job is not to make up beliefs for obedient Catholics to follow but to hand on the faith received from the apostles. And Christ has promised to be with the Church somehow, through the meanders of history and the foibles of her leaders.
Secondly, Peter recalls that his job is to shepherd the flock. He’s supposed to be a principle of unity, keeping the faithful together and tending to those most in need. This is the particular service for which the Pope is called “servant of the servants of God”.
But over what flock does Christ’s Vicar preside? Our Creed professes belief in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”.
There is only One Church of Christ: “The Church has but one faith, one sacramental life, one apostolic succession, one common hope, one and the same charity”. That the Christian people are divided in various ways is a scandal to the world and undermines the advance of the Gospel and we must constantly pray and work for Christian unity.
As Pope Francis has taught, following St Paul, St Cyprian, Aquinas and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church “is one and the same everywhere. As we receive one Body in the Eucharist to unite us as one Spirit in Christ, so the greatest gift we can give back to God is our unity in peace and fraternal concord as one family with God and the saints.” So the ancient creed says the Church is one.
We also profess that the Church is Holy. This is the claim most likely to make us spill our cappuccino.
How dare anyone say the Church is holy after our noses have been so thoroughly rubbed in its failures of late?
Our Church’s history is sadly replete with sin and even criminality. But the reason we – and the community – are rightly scandalised by this is that the Church could be and should be so much more than this.
As Christ founded it as a perennial mediator of His divine grace, so He incarnated it in a human nature, multiple human natures, “for us men and for our salvation”.
Given all her failings, Pope Francis thinks we could only take the Church seriously because we were convinced that Christ is at work sanctifying her through the offering of His life.
But because He is doing this, we see fruits in the lives of the apostles, martyrs and saints, in the conversion of sinners, in innumerable works of beauty and worship, of justice and charity.
The Church is also Catholic. She is everyone’s home and so she reaches to every generation and people, and will take the faith to Mars if we ever discover little green men. And she proclaims the whole deal, the real deal, not just the fashionable bits, not just the popular causes.
Finally, the creed says the Church is Apostolic, as if her foundations in Jerusalem and Rome still matter (Mt 19:28; Eph 2:20).
To those who claim to know some secret or private truth necessary for salvation but not public to all, the Church responds: the Revelation of Jesus Christ was once for all and was received and passed on in its entirety by the Apostles and completed on their death (cf Jude 3).
According to Pope Francis, to call the Church “apostolic” is to underline the “constitutive bond that the Church has with the Apostles”.
Now ‘apostle’ in Greek means someone sent and so an apostolic Church is not just one founded on past apostles but one that keeps sending people to preach, to guard and hand on that which we have received. Like the Apostle Paul the Church is essentially missionary, fundamentally about intentional discipleship, not accidental or dormant or genetic discipleship, and cannot hide her Gospel in sacristies or cults.
That is what the office of the papacy, and of the bishops joined to it, especially those tied to Peter by a woolly pallium, are for.
They must ensure that ours is a united, holy, universal, apostolic, missionary Church.
And that challenges each one of us: am I a force for unity, am I growing in sanctity, do I share what I have received with all those around me?
This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP during Mass at the altar of St Peter’s tomb, in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica on 25 June.