Thinking allowed

from the shrine of St Peter

If this is Thursday, this must be the Vat­ic­an! Today we vis­ited the Vat­ic­an Museum, the Sis­tine Chapel, and the Basilica of St Peter. Jonath­an Board­man, chap­lain of All Saints, the Anglic­an church in Rome, gave us a tour of some of the prin­cip­al works in the museum, and talked about the paint­ings in the Sis­tine Chapel. Although I have been in the Chapel twice before, this was the first time since the major res­tor­a­tion of the Michelan­gelo fres­coes. It was also the first time I had really con­sidered the over­all scheme of the dec­or­a­tion: the ceil­ing depict­ing scenes from the Cre­ation to the Flood; the pairs of pic­tures on the side walls by a num­ber of earli­er artists (Old and New Test­a­ment scenes in pairs, where the OT scene is in some way a ‘type’ for the NT one oppos­ite it); and, of course, the Last Judge­ment on the ‘east’ wall. Here we see Peter and Paul as the strong men of Christ, sport­ing their per­fect, resur­rec­ted, bod­ies (or at least, as Jonath­an later noted, per­fect in the eyes of Michelan­gelo; we might not all envis­age our per­fec­ted bod­ies as those of East Ger­man athletes!).

And then to the Basilica of St Peter. The vast­ness of this build­ing nev­er ceases to amaze. I remem­ber vis­it­ing as a school­boy in 1973. Our guide asked a fel­low pupil to walk over to one of the columns and touch the carving of a dove that seemed a few feet off the floor. As he got near­er we real­ized that far from hav­ing to reach down to it, he could not in fact reach it by stretch­ing up. The per­fect scale of the build­ing had con­fused our senses. On the oth­er hand, you do have to won­der what the fish­er­man from the Sea of Galilee might have made of all this splend­our and pomp.

This is a place where the claims of the bish­ops of Rome are most evid­ent, from the ‘Tu es Pet­rus’ mosa­ic in massive let­ters writ­ten around the base of the dome, to the monu­ments recall­ing pap­al declar­a­tions such as the ‘immacu­late con­cep­tion’, and above all the gran­di­ose memori­als to a swathe of popes in the main basilica. These expli­citly pro­claim the primacy and uni­ver­sal imme­di­ate jur­is­dic­tion of the see of Rome. As an Anglic­an, I find it very easy to chal­lenge the show of pride and opu­lance, and the claims to power that these build­ings and memori­als present (whilst not for­get­ting that my own church has its own grand build­ings, monu­ments and claims).

As a con­trast to all the show it is a wel­come change to des­cend to the crypt. Here you stand more or less at the level of the basilica built in the time of Con­stantine in the first half of the fourth cen­tury. Imme­di­ately beneath the dome and the high altar (with its great bal­dachino designed by Bern­ini, and forged from bronze taken from the Pan­theon of ancient Rome) stands the tomb of St Peter. Not his actu­al tomb, I think, which lies anoth­er level down, not access­ible to the gen­er­al pub­lic, but a shrine to the saint, non­ethe­less. This is the place to stand and give thanks for the life of Simon son of Jonah, to whom Christ gave the nick­name ‘Ceph­as’ or ‘rock’ (‘pet­ros’ in Greek), and to pray — espe­cially at this time, in the middle of the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity — for the unity of the Church, uni­on amongst Anglic­ans and uni­on with our oth­er sep­ar­ated broth­ers and sis­ters, and espe­cially in this place, uni­on with the see of Rome, with the suc­cessors of St Peter.

When you stand before, or over, the tomb of the lead­er of the Apostles, you are taken back to New Test­a­ment times, to the days 2000 years ago when Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called Simon, son of Jonah, to fol­low him, to the days when Simon Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Christ, dis­owned him, and was for­giv­en, to the days when he preached the resur­rec­tion of Christ in Jer­u­s­alem, and then through the east­ern Roman Empire, before end­ing up in Rome, to suf­fer and die as a wit­ness to the king­dom of God pro­claimed by the Jesus he had known. Here, in the crypt of the basilica, the pomp of the main church is for­got­ten — the roof is low, the walls are plain. Here are the simple tombs of many of the popes, placed close to where they believed Peter was bur­ied. Here it is pos­sible to for­get the grandeur that is just a few feet over your head, and to recov­er a simple spir­itu­al­ity, and the simple mes­sage at the heart of what Chris­ti­ans believe, and to which Chris­ti­ans down the ages have borne witness.

It is easy to say that the claims of Rome are mis­con­ceived and mis­un­der­stood, but even so I find myself not unwill­ing to allow a primacy of hon­our to this ancient see, effect­ively the only one remain­ing of the ancient pat­ri­arch­ates of Jer­u­s­alem (the see of James, the broth­er of Jesus), of Alex­an­dria, and of Anti­och, all three long since hav­ing lost their Chris­ti­an hin­ter­land. This primacy would not be the primacy of the main basilica, a primacy of marble and costly show, a primacy of uni­ver­sal jur­is­dic­tion or of infal­lible pro­nounce­ments; rather it would be like the crypt, plain and simple, unadorned, the ser­vant of all, exhib­it­ing mor­al strength, uncor­rup­ted per­son­al char­ac­ter, and the love of God the Fath­er and of the cre­ated world, preached by the car­penter of Nazareth.