During the first year in which I studied theology in Rome, I had often visited St. Peter’s Basilica. I had attended the Pope’s Easter Mass in a crowded St. Peter’s Square, climbed the basilica’s dome, and toured the remarkable archeological digs beneath the church’s pavement. Yet of all such occasions, I especially recall one morning that our community of seminarians made a trip to the Basilica for no other purpose than to pray,
It was a time of transition. Vatican Council II, the first comprehensive reshaping of Catholicism since the Council of Trent, 400 years earlier, had been a momentous event whose meaning was only beginning to be understood. Several of our professors had provided theological assistance to bishops and had written books and articles about the hall-marks of this event: dialog with the “modern world,” pastoral renewal, and a call for engagements of all the “People of God” in the life of the Church. Less clear, was how all of this related to the traditional structures of church authority, and particularly the role of Pope and Vatican officials.
The fact of the matter was that centuries of tradition could not be adjusted overnight, and a seminarian in Rome was living in a world where the role of the Vatican was still largely unchanged from what it had been for centuries. The structure of our courses had changed little since the early 1900’s: the preferred teaching language of our dogma courses was Latin. On issues of faith, a quotation from St. Augustine was frequently cited to remind us where truth was to be found: “Roma locuta est causa finita” (“Roma has spoken, the matter has been resolved.”)
Papal influence went beyond the academic realm, however. In the mid 1960s Roman seminarians were still forbidden to attend sporting events, the opera and even movie theaters. Though the broad-brimmed seminarian’s hat and Roman sash were no longer required, no seminarian appeared on a city street unless dressed in cassock and Roman collar.
In this context, the Vatican’s physical presence exerted an aura that is hard to describe. The majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica and the lofty Vatican Palaces bespoke a vision of an earthly triumphant Church developed in response to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Never far from our minds was the near-mystical presence of the Supreme Pontiff, in residence in the high upper floors of the Vatican Palace.
The Pope at this time, Paul VI, was in fact a progressive force who had simplified papal protocols, traveled widely, and aggressively promoted liturgical reform and ecumenism, but most of the old ways continued. We saw the Pope from time to time, but always from a distance surrounded by a court of liveried retainers, and high clergy in long-flowing red and scarlet robes.
Despite the efforts of our more progressive professors to broaden this notion of Catholicism, it was hard to shed our conviction that the “real Church” was an ascending ladder of priests, bishops, and cardinals, with the Holy Father at the highest rung. It was an image reinforced by the display and pomp of the great papal ceremonies, and enormous respect accorded to the person of the Vicar of Christ.
An early morning bus ride to the Vatican from our seminary at the edge of the city was therefore a very special event. The group was made up of almost a 100 young men in their early twenties, excited by the prospect of a visit to St. Peter’s. It was a remarkably diverse group: French-speaking Africans from the Congo, seminarians from Northern and Eastern Europe, South America, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Communist Yugoslavia. Conscience of the geographic breadth of Catholicism, we had come to pray at the shrine, of St. Peter and his successors, the divinely commissioned guarantors of that unity.
We were hardly the first to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Peter. During the darkest centuries, Christians had come to Rome by foot from Ireland and Northern Germany to pray at the tomb of Peter. To accommodate these visitors, the Emperor Constantine erected a large Church honoring St. Peter In 324 AD. Construction of an even larger basilica began in the early 1500s. This is the great edifice that today continues to attract Catholics from around the world.
Emerging from St. Peter’s Square we crossed the basilica’s great porch, where two papal gendarmes wearing high leather boots and bearskin hats showed surprise at such activity at this hour of the day. Above us the immensity of the nave and the powerful pillars soaring toward the high vaulted ceiling worked their magic. For a brief time we stood silently at the threshold of the huge edifice. Then, Father Cantini, the young professor from Argentina leading our visit, intoned the first three words of the solemn Gregorian hymn: “Credo in Unum Deum,” (“I believe in One God.”). Taking up the melody in a single voice we began to walk toward the high altar.
From the inside doorway of the basilica to the altar is a distance of some 120 yards, and as we crossed the expanses of marble pavement, the words of the Church’s profession of faith took on special meaning. A few churchgoers, surprised by the sound of our song as it echoed through the basilica, stepped to the side and allowed us to pass, while in niches far above us, 20-foot high statues of the founders of religious orders looked down passively upon us. Our walk of only a few minutes, in its own way, was traversing centuries of faith. Moving up the nave, we passed the seated statue of St. Peter whose foot had been worn smooth by pilgrims’ kisses across the centuries. Eventually we reached the high altar. There under the basilica’s enormous cupola we confessed our faith in “unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” – “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” High over heard, as we stood below words lining the base of the great cupola: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
When we concluded our song, there was a moment of silence and then we quietly moved on to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament for morning Mass. Over the years, I have visited St. Peter’s many times, and my respect for the Church and the successor of Peter has always remained with me, but somehow things were simpler and far more vivid in the 1960s. The walk in St. Peter’s was barely longer than the length of a football field. But the presence of God that morning, in this timeless setting, was unlike anything I have experienced since.