Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Hanging With the Pope

We headed out of Naples for Rome. Our stated mission was to break into the oldest sewer in the world. But there was other stuff to see along the way. You don’t go to Rome without planning some appreciation for the two great historical institutions that have had their headquarters there: the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

The first Catholic site I went to was St. Peter’s Basilica . In addition to being a historic, artistic, and architectural marvel, St. Peter’s actually has a remarkable amount of public access. In fact, you can see five different levels at one point. After checking out the interior, I headed up to the top.

I took the stairs the whole way. After a few hundred steps, you’re out on a balcony on the inside overlooking the alter.From there, you head out to the lower roof.

Then a few hundred more steps and you’re rewarded with great views of Rome from the viewing terrace on top of the dome, which was designed by Michelangelo as one of his last works.

he walk up itself was actually pretty fun. There’s about a dozen different types of staircases along the way, and at one point you actually have to learn about 20 degrees to the right while walking, to adjust for the slope of the dome.

The other two levels are below. Underneath the alter is the tomb of the past popes, which is publicly accessible whenever the Basilica is open. And underneath that level is a fascinating archeological site. Tours are given semi-regularly, and we were lucky enough to catch one in English.

Before there was a St. Peter’s Basilica - in fact before there was a St. Peter - the area west of the Tiber river was mainly a burial place. Underneath the Vatican is an entire “City of the Dead” - catacombs filled with Christian, Jewish, and Pagan burial sites. Over the years it’s been excavated, and now has periodic tours where you can also see the burial place of St. Peter. Our guide told us the long twisted take of discovering St. Peter’s remains - basically, since the Vatican’s nightmare was to not find St. Peter’s remains below the alter where they were supposed to be, excavation was held up for centuries. Eventually, remains were found matching the age, sex, and expiration date of the Basilica’s namesake. The final kicker that led the Vatican to declare they were St. Peter’s remains? Despite an abundance of hand and finger bones, there were no foot bones found. Legend has it that St. Peter was crucified upside-down. The easiest way to take a dead body off an upside-down cross? Chop off his feet at the ankles.

A lot of people mistakenly think that St. Peter’s Basilica is the seat of the Bishop of Rome - A.K.A. the Pope. Actually, that honor is held by St. John Lateran - or “The Cathedral Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran.” Cathedral because it contains a Cathedra, or seat of a Bishop. Archbasilica because as the seat of the Pope, it’s considered above all other basilicas. Most Holy Savior because all Patriarchal Basilicas consider Jesus to be the primary patron, with whoever they are named after (Paul, Peter, the Johns, and the Virgin Mary), as secondary patrons. Saint John the Baptist and the Evanglalist because it was actually dedicated twice, and they decided to keep them both. And in the Lateran, because the location is the site of the former palace of the Laterani family.

I decided to head to St. John’s right after my visit to St. Peter’s. And after that, I decided to try and make a Grand Slam of the four Major Basilicas. I headed to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls next (which is supposedly above the burial place of St. Paul). St. Paul’s is most noteworthy for having a portrait of every Pope in history. When there’s no more room for another Pope, it signals (obviously) the end of the world. There’s eight spots left. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church would not let any Non-Catholic Churches in the city of Rome. The name of the first one, an English language Anglican church? Why “St. Paul’s Inside the Walls” of course. I finished off the Grand Slam with a visit to St. Mary Maggiore, about a half-hour before it closed.

The next day we went to see the Vatican Museum (best known for the Sistine Chapel with the famous ceiling by Michelangelo). The scene in the Chapel is half funny, half pitiful. It’s unbelievably crowded, and despite the prominently displayed “flashbulb with a slash through it” signs, you keep hearing is the guards saying “no flash, no flash” in a resigned voice about every 10 seconds.

In addition to the Vatican Museum, we also saw the Pope. It wasn’t too tough - you head to St. Peter’s on Tuesday, the Swiss Guards give you tickets (free of charge), and you show up the next day.

The whole thing was hilarious. The Pope reads a short statement in about a dozen different languages. Then after each time he reads it, he basically gives a shout-out to whoever happens to be there that speaks that language. If a group from a church in Uruguay is visiting (which they were), he’ll say something like “and I wish to welcome the congregation of St. Mary’s from Montevideo, Uruguay” after he’s done reading the statement in Spanish, and the aforementioned congregation will stands up and cheer and wave Uruguayan flags. Repeat for everyone else that’s there. At one point, I kid you not, a Marching Band stood up and played a few songs after their organization had been given a shout-out. Then after all of that the Pope blesses everything in the room, and that’s a wrap. It’s basically the same as going to a rap concert, but instead of “Is Brooklyn in the House?” it’s “is St. Stephen’s Church of Bratislava, Slovakia in the house?” And as said by Pope Benedict XVI instead of the Method Man.

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