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Apr 18 St Peters Basilica, the biggest church in the world


Today we remember how the cornerstone was laid for St Peters Basilica on the Vatican Hill outside of Rome. We look at the Egyptian Obelisk outside that marks the spot in Nero's Circus where the apostle Peter was crucified upside down. WE also explore the tradition of pilgrimage and prayer to the spot before any buildings were built and investigate the archaeological investigations to find his tomb underneath the high altar. It is now the biggest church in the world - but why is not a Cathedral? And where is the mother church for Catholics if this is not it? Listen below and find out! Looking at the incredible architecture - what other churches were inspired by it ?

On the 18th of April in 1506 the cornerstone for Saint Peter's Basilica was laid. Currently the largest church in the world, St Peters holds a unique position in the Christian world. This was acknowledged in a sinister way, when the Islamic terror group ISIS, featured St. Peter’s Square on its cover of their propaganda magazine with the headline “The Failed Crusade,” It depicted the terrorist group’s infamous blag flag flying over the piazza’s central obelisk. However, it is a common misapprehension that St Peters is the mother church of the Catholic Church and the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Both of these distinctions are held by Saint John Lateran which is 4 kms away, in the city of Rome outside of Vatican City. It can be a dangerous misapprehension as in 2018 the Italian police arrested a 20-year-old Somali man suspected of having been a member of Islamic State and who had threatened to bomb churches in Italy, including St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican


Back in the year 324, Pope Sylvester presided over the official dedication of St John Lateran and the adjacent Lateran palace. Also the difference between a basilica and a cathedral is a subtle one. A cathedral indicates the official church of the Bishop, housing the ‘cathedra’, the seat of the Bishop. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church is described as ex-cathedra. A basilica is a large and important church building, and is distinguished for ceremonial purposes from other churches, basilicas can be Cathedrals too, but most aren’t, as they don’t hold the Bishops Chair – the Cathedra. Basilica is a formal title bestowed on the church and are designated by the pope as either major basilicas – of which there are four, all in the diocese of Rome—or minor basilicas, of which there are currently 1,810 worldwide.


St Peter’s basilica is a key pilgrimage site for many Christians, as it is built over the burial site of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. His tomb is directly below the high altar of the basilica and is open for private masses early in the morning, but has to be booked. Peter, after a ministry of thirty-four years, travelled to Rome and met his martyrdom there along with Paul on 13th October 64 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. His execution was one of the many following the Great Fire of Rome which was erroneously blamed on Christians. According to the early Christian scholar Origen, Peter was crucified upside down, by his own request because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Circus of Nero. The obelisk, one of four in Rome, now stands in St. Peter's Square and is revered as a "witness" to Peter's death. The area now covered by the Vatican City had been a cemetery for some years before the Circus of Nero was built. It became a burial ground for the numerous executions in the Circus and contained many Christian burials. Peter's remains were buried just outside the Circus, on the Vatican Hill across the Via Cornelia from the Circus, less than 150 metres from his place of death. The tradition of the early church was that bereaved Christians buried martyrs as near as possible to the scene of their suffering. It is believed that the burial of Peter followed this custom. A shrine was built on this site some years later.


Many years after the burial of Saint Peter, many Christians chose to be buried near him. Dionysius of Corinth mentions the burial place of Peter when he wrote to the Church of Rome in the time of the Pope Soter in the second century, thanking the Romans for their financial help. The actual tomb was an underground vault, approached from the road by a descending staircase, and the body reposed in a sarcophagus of stone in the centre of this vault. Peters’ successor as Pope was Anacletus. The Book of Popes states that Pope Anacletus built a "sepulchral monument" over the underground tomb of Saint Peter shortly after his death. This was a small chamber or oratory over the tomb, where three or four persons could kneel and pray over the grave discreetly. There is a letter from the beginning of the 3rd century that states: " I can show the trophies of the Apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican, or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church." These tombs became pilgrimage sites during the ages of persecution, and many were seized while praying at the tombs of the Apostles. During the reign of Valerian, Christian persecution was particularly severe and the remains of the Christian dead had lost their usual protections under Roman law. The remains of Peter and Paul may have been removed secretly by night in order to preserve them from desecration by the Romans. They were returned to their original tombs in 260 when Valerian's reign ended.


Construction of the present huge basilica began on 18 April 1506 and was completed on 18 November 1626. It has had four main architects, Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini, and is widely considered to be the greatest work of Renaissance architecture. In modern times the claim that it is above the tomb of the apostle Peter has been put under renewed historical scrutiny. Archaeologist Margherita Guarducci gives a survey of different attempts in history to investigate Peters final resting place in her 1960 book The Tomb of St. Peter. In 1939, 10 years of archaeological research began under the crypt of the basilica in an area that had been inaccessible since the 9th century. The excavations revealed the remains of shrines of different periods at different levels, built over a small shrine containing fragments of bones that were folded in a tissue with gold decorations, tinted with the precious murex purple. The bones were found in a marble- lined niche within a wall, which itself was inscribed with graffiti that included the Greek words Petros eni — “Peter is here.” Although it could not be determined with certainty that the bones were those of Peter, the rare vestments suggested a burial of great importance. On 23 December 1950, in his pre-Christmas radio broadcast to the world, Pope Pius XII announced the discovery of Saint Peter's tomb.


Emperor Constantine built a large basilica between 319 and 333 AD. It was over 103.6 metres (340 ft) long, and built over the small shrine believed to mark the burial place of St. Peter. However this Basilica fell into disrepair during the 14th Century when seven successive popes resided in Avignon rather than in Rome. The decision to rebuild was made by Pope Nicholas V but frustrated by political problems, when he died, little had been achieved. He had, however, ordered the demolition of the Colosseum and by the time of his death, 2,522 cartloads of stone had been transported for use in the new building. One method employed to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica was the granting of indulgences in return for contributions. A major promoter of this method of fund-raising was Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, who had to clear debts owed to the Roman Curia by contributing to the rebuilding program. To facilitate this, he appointed the German Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel, whose salesmanship provoked a scandal, and lead to the German Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, wrote to Archbishop Albrecht arguing against this "selling of indulgences". These became known as The 95 Theses and sparked the Reformation, and the birth of Protestantism.


The design of St. Peter's Basilica, and in particular its dome by Michelangelo (see pod of Mar 6), has greatly influenced church architecture in Western Christendom. Christopher Wren's dome at St Paul's Cathedral (London, England), the domes of Karlskirche (Vienna, Austria), St. Nicholas Church (Prague, Czech Republic), and the Pantheon (Paris, France) all pay homage to St Peter's Basilica. In Northern America the 19th and early-20th-century architectural revivals brought about the building of a great number of churches that imitate elements of St Peter's to a greater or lesser degree, including St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago, St. Josaphat's Basilica in Milwaukee, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pittsburgh and Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal