Monday, September 19, 2011

Entering the Open Arms of Vatican City

Our first moment in Vatican City was late at night, the evening of the same day that we had been blessed by the Holy Father.

We had completed our touristy to-do list for the day, and Michael suggested that we go, just to be there by ourselves, in order to soak it in without the crowds.

Vatican City's entrance is made of two rounded walls of pillars.  Michael told me that they are to act as open arms, welcoming in any person, Catholic or not.

Michael knew exactly how to get us there (having been there before briefly, years ago) and as soon as he brought me through the columns and into the center, I began to cry.

Here I was!  Here WE were!  All of this was the fulfillment of a lifelong desire.

St. Peter's Basilica was huge and beautiful and gorgeous.  It seemed to glow in the night.  Everything was peaceful and quiet and serene.  We had made it.  We were here!  That's all I could joyfully think about!

And so we spent a good bit of time alone together, just soaking it all in.

Michael is pointing to the window from which the Holy Father will often wave!  The window on the far top right is his bedroom, they say.  The one to the left of that is his study window, and that is where he waves from!  Late at night, the light will often be on in his study, as reportedly the Holy Father sometimes stays up quite late, reading and writing!

After some time, a seminarian named Taylor came up to us and introduced himself, as well as the two friends he was with (Allyson and Mark).  He could tell we were American, and so were they.  They had traveled here with the Pro-Sanctity Movement from Omaha, Nebraska and would be continuing to Madrid, Spain next week for the World Youth Day activities.

And, as only the Holy Spirit could arrange it... Yes, we knew the Pro-Sanctity Movement, for we had met other members of their wonderful group on the train earlier that day on the journey to see the pope!  What a small Catholic world.  And then it got smaller: We discovered that Taylor's sister lives on the same street as my dear friend Lija (who was a bridesmaid in my wedding)!

Taylor, Allyson, and Mark invited us to join them the next morning for their group's private daily mass at 7:15 AM in one of the crypt churches of St. Peter's Basilica.  Of course, we would love to join them!  After that, perhaps we could join them on the Scavi Tour, they suggested.  This was a rare and privileged tour to be on, as only 200 people are granted admittance to it on any given day and advance registration was required.  It is a tour of the graves in the catacombs beneath the church.

But all of us believed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so we decided to leave it all up to God and His Holy Will.  If we were meant to go on the Scavi Tour, God would make it possible.  We would get up early the next day for daily mass, we promised, and hopefully we would find them.

Getting past the guards and down into the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica would be a challenge the next morning.  Many of them would shoo us away in Italian, gesturing that we would not be admitted and pointing to signs that indicated that mass for the faithful would be happening later at 9 AM.

But we kept trying and explaining that we were with a private group.  And we were 10 minutes late, because of the long line and security check point, and perhaps this worked in our favor because it seemed that we had been displaced from our group as a result.

A kind guard let me look at the list on his clip board.  I was able to identify our group as being the one on his list from Omaha, Nebraska, and so, he let us past him.

Once in the crypt, a new challenge was before us.  There were many private masses happening in many different crypt churches, each in a different language.  We would have to walk as if we knew where we were going, identify the English-speaking masses, and we would have to join in a celebration as if we recognized the people that were in it.

Our first guess was incorrect.  Looking only at the backs of people's heads, I could not identify Taylor, Allyson, or Mark.  But we participated in the mass anyhow, until I suggested to Michael that he remain there while I sneak off to see if they were elsewhere.  I suspected that we were in the wrong place because the mass seemed farther along in the liturgy than it would be for the starting time of 7:15.

Down the corridor and around the corner, I found them!  And so, I snuck back to Michael and gestured that he come with me, hopefully to the avoidance of anyone's concerned eyes, especially that of the guard's, whose back was now toward us.

This he did, and then the two of us gingerly crept through the wrought iron grill doors of the chapel.  Members of the Pro-Sanctity Movement looked confused.  Who were these two people suddenly joining in?  I prayed and hoped that Allyson, Mark, or Taylor would turn, recognize us, and wave to us.

During Communion, we all saw each other.  And afterward, we spoke again to the the priest that headed their group and who we had met the day before on the train.  Sure, we could join the group on the Scavi Tour.  Absolutely.  He warmly introduced us to everyone, explaining that we were here on our honeymoon.  People seemed instantly endeared to us, even to the point of sharing the group's snacks with us!

The Scavi Tour immediately followed mass, and we were delighted to be a part of it.  For about an hour, we walked through the dark, very damp, ancient catacombs beneath St. Peter's, where the early Christians were buried.  We learned that--through the generations--it was passed on verbally that the bones of St. Peter were buried in this location, and that is why a basilica was built on top of it.  But of course, there was no tangible proof...until the 1940s.

The pope who had recently died around that time requested to be buried beneath St. Peter's Basilica.  But, as they were digging, they uncovered a new corridor of catacombs, and in the years that followed, more and more clues were found that eventually lead to St. Peter's grave!  A few decades later, scientific testing allowed us to confirm that the bones were of a man who lived at the time of Christ and that he died in his 60's or 70's.  Interestingly, no bones from his feet were found, and this was further confirmation that it was Peter.  For, if you recall, he was crucified upside down (at his request, since he didn't feel he should be crucified in the same way as his Lord).  To remove a body from a cross when hung upside down, the feet are chopped off.  What a terrible disrespect of the human body!

The many people who built St. Peter's Basilica (as well as the large church that preceded it and was later destroyed by fire) built it on faith.  They built it on the belief that St. Peter's tomb was beneath it.  Even the artist Michaelangelo painted the dome above the altar with the belief that St. Peter was beneath it.

As it turned out, the main altar and dome of St. Peter's Basilica is only TWO FEET OFF from the actual grave of St. Peter's bones.  How beautiful!  The verbal tradition of St. Peter's burial spot was indeed right!

This is the main altar at St. Peter's Basilica.  St. Peter's bones are beneath it!  See the huge letters on the wall? They're SEVEN feet tall!  I believe I read that the arch above the main altar is as tall as an ELEVEN story building!

As we beheld the few bones of St. Peter that are on display (encased in glass and at a distance from us, buried in the wall), she reminded us that we were looking at the bones of a man who work, ate, and slept beside Our Dear Lord!  And then she suggested we take a moment to pray for our intentions.  We concluded the tour by all saying an "Our Father," and I was quite emotional!

As we ascended back up into the basilica, we couldn't thank the wonderful people of the Pro-Sanctity Movement enough!  What a joy we just experienced.  What a memory!  We were so grateful!

Here's some additional pictures of us at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City!

Us in front of the statue of St. Veronica!  Above this statue was a relic...a piece of the cloth she used to wipe the face of Jesus!

Here we are at the grave of our beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II!!  He's the one who gave the world the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary...and the Theology of the Body!