Whether you’re a lover of art, a student of history, or one of the more than one billion Catholics the world over, all roads lead to the Vatican. Mo Rocca takes us there…
Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world, an enclave tucked inside of Rome — just 110 acres in area, with fewer than 1,000 residents. But it draws more than six million visitors each year to the monumental St. Peter’s Square, the magnificent Vatican museums and, at its heart, one of the holiest sites in the world: Saint Peter’s Basilica.
New York’s Timothy Cardinal was a 22-year-old seminarian when he first visited St. Peter’s. He described the traditional procession when a new pope is elected: “He would leave the Sistine Chapel, say a prayer at the Pauline Chapel, and then walk out here and go to the central loggia. And if you see the beautiful mosaic up there — that’s the words of Jesus, from the 16th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, ‘You are Peter. And upon this rock I will build my church.’
“There are certain symbols, there are certain images, especially in the mind of a Catholic, that sort of represent something awesome, and St. Peter’s would be one of those,” Dolan said. “To see this close up – you talk about something that would just shake ya’. It was great!”
St. Peter is at the center of it all — spiritually, architecturally and literally. “I try to imagine the different people who have walked through here,” says art historian Elizabeth Lev. “I imagine the saints, all these great figures that are now up there that once actually walked through this square.
“The site of St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square, is all centered around the tomb of St. Peter, which is found 144 meters under that golden globe on the top of Michelangelo’s dome,” Lev said.
Built on the site where Peter (the apostle and first pope) was crucified upside-down — martyred, along with other early Christians, by the Roman Emperor Nero in 64 A.D.
“It was Peter who said, ‘I’m not worthy to die the same way the master did. Would you crucify me upside-down?’” Dolan said.
Lev said, “So when Peter’s body was cut down off the cross he had to be buried immediately. They stuck Peter in the trench, they covered him with some dirt and that was the end of the man who was referred to as the Prince of the Apostles.”
“And does this instantly become a shrine, a place where pilgrims come?” Rocca asked.
“Even though that tomb is so inauspicious, this is where the whole story begins.”