The Stational Churches of Rome: San Pietro in Vaticano

March 25, 2012

We continue to look at the Stational Churches of Lent.  These are particular churches in Rome associated with a particular day.  Every day in Lent has, by ancient custom, a stational church associated with it.  This series examines the stational churches associated with the Sundays of Lent.

Basilica of St Peter, Winter 2012
For the past Sundays, we have followed the path of the Stational Churches on the Sunday of Lent.  For the most part, they have kept us close to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  This ought not be too surprising, as this is the cathedral church of Rome–the See of the Bishop of Rome and therefore the mother Church of all of the Churches of Christendom. On this Sunday, we are for the first time on a Sunday on the other side of the Tiber river, having left secular Rome for the sanctity of the Vatican Hill.  For the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the stational church is the church of St. Peter in the Vatican.  In the popular consciousness of many Catholics, it is this Basilica that is most clearly tied to the Holy Father.  It is, after all, in apartments connected to this Basilica where the current Pope resides.  It is the Sistine Chapel where the Pope is elected.  An so, as Dom Guerenger can write in his book on The Liturgical year: “At Rome, the Station is in the basilica of St. Peter. The importance of this Sunday, which never gives way to any feast, no matter what its solemnity may be, required that the place for the assembly of the faithful should be in one of the chief sanctuaries of the holy city.”  This Solemnity is maintained, as the usual Solemnity of the Annunciation, which falls on this day, is transferred to Monday, from its usual day exactly 9 months before Christmas.
Tomb of St. Peter
But the importance of this Basilica is not so much its connection with the current Pope, but its connection with the first.  The original Basilica was built on this site by the command of the Emperor Constantine.  This spot was chosen because of its connection with the martyrdom of St. Peter.  Under the reign of the mad Emperor Nero, St. Peter was martyred here in what was Nero’s garden.  A century and a half later, the great Catechist Origen describes his death: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”  St. Peter followed his Lord in being crucified, but showed his humility in being crucified upside-down.
Statue of St. Peter
That Constantinian Basilica lasted for more than 1,000 years.  However, given the Popes’ movement of the Papacy to Avignon, the Basilica began to fall into a state of great disrepair.  And so, at the dawn of the 16th century, the Pope sought to build the greatest church in Christendom, with the help of some of the best artists and architects of Renaissance Italy, including Michelangelo.  The current Basilica took more than a century to build, and remains as one of the largest and grandest churches in the world. While the Church was long believed to have been built over the remains of St. Peter, its exact location remained somewhat of a mystery.  However, in the 20th century, excavations under the Basilica found the bones of a man in his 60’s that dated from the first century, stored awy in a special niche.  It was believed by many, including Pope Paul VI, that these bones were the bones of St. Peter.  These were found directly beneath the Basilica’s confessio and the high altar.
Cathedra Petri
The Basilica also stands as a reminder of the authority of St. Peter.  The Church of Rome maintains its prominence in the Catholic Church in part because its is the burial place of the Church’s two great martyrs–Sts. Peter and Paul.  Also, it was to St. Peter and his successors that Our Lord gave the “keys of the kingdom”, thereby establishing a kind of stewardship over the Church to the Pontiff.  And so, at the very back of St. Peter’s is the great Altar of the Chair of St. Peter.  The chair–cathedra, in Latin–is the ancient symbol of the teaching authority of the Bishop.  (In the ancient world, it was often the instructor who sat and the students who stood.)  Piously believed to contain a relic of St. Peter’s own chair, one finds Bernini’s great bronze sculpted chair.
Window of the Holy Spirit
Above the Chair is the famous alabaster window of the Holy Spirit, a reminder of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.  The Holy Father speaks not simply with his own authority, but is given grace by the Holy Spirit to guide and lead the universal Church.  In addition, the Chair is supported by statues of the four great doctors of the Church, two Latin and two Greek:  St. Ambrose, St. Anthanasius, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine.  This serves to represent the theology of the entire Church–East and West–in support of the Magisterium of the Holy Father. Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council this Sunday (rather than the one following) was known as Passion Sunday.  A remnant of this may be seen in the fact that this is the day on which churches may veil their statutes in penitential violet in anticipation of Holy Week and the Passion of Christ.  And so the Basilica of St. Peter’s also turns our minds towards the Passion.  The great central feature of St. Peter’s Basilica is Bernini’s bronze baldachino over the high altar.  In the area where the altar is found, at each corner is a great statue, each representing some aspect of the passion.  There is a statue of St. Helen (who figured so prominently in the stational church of the previous week) holding the True Cross.  Continuing clock-wise, one sees the statue of the soldier St. Longinus holding the spear that pierced the side of Jesus.  Next is the statue of St. Andrew with the St. Andrew’s Cross (the X-shaped cross), and finally St. Veronica holding her veil with the image of Jesus’ face imprinted upon it.  Under each of these statues is a relic of the objects–the true cross, the spear, Andrew’s cross, and the veil.  In a sense, at this Mass on what was Passion Sunday, the altar is surrounded by the visible reminders of the Passion. So, on this day the Church has traditionally intensified her penitential practices.  As we shear away more of the distractions of this world, we hope to be able to receive a more bountiful gift of the graces of this holy season. By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God, may we walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, you son handed himself over to death.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  

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