The visitation of Saint Peter’s Basilica, which takes place this week as part of the annual station church pilgrimage through Rome, holds special significance in these days as Catholics worldwide await the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the forthcoming election of a new Bishop of Rome.
Every morning throughout Lent (except on Sundays), priests and seminarians of the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) lead English-speaking pilgrims through the city to celebrate 7 a.m. Mass at one of the station churches, continuing a tradition that goes back to the early days of the Church.
Concluding this week’s station church pilgrimage is a visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Built over the tomb of the first pope, Saint Peter the Apostle, the current basilica was completed in the 17th century to replace the original 4th century basilica – commissioned during the reign of Emperor Constantine – which had fallen into disrepair. The basilica also stands on the site of what was once an ancient Roman circus where many early Christians, and very likely St. Peter himself, were martyred. The obelisk that today is found at the center of Saint Peter’s Square stood also at the center of this ancient circus.
Benedict and Peter
John and Ashley Noronha are experienced tour guides of Rome, known for having hosted the EWTN series, “Vatican Report’s Art & Faith.” They spoke with ZENIT about visiting St. Peter’s Basilica as part of the Lenten station church pilgrimage, and the significance of such a visit during this unique time in Church history.
John Noronha, a professor of theology and art and architecture, noted the continuity between the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI and that of St. Peter. “When Pope Benedict was elected he said that his goal, and the theme and task of his papacy, was to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit along with the whole Church. And then we see how, when he resigned, he told us that he was doing it out of love for the Church.”
Reflecting back to the first pope, John Noronha noted how St. Peter “was one of the Christians being persecuted, being sought out. He was leaving the city because that is what he thought he ought to do as the leader of the Christians, so he could continue shepherding the Church. He then had a mystical experience on the Appian Way and Christ let him know that he needed to come back to Rome and be crucified. And that is what he did; he followed the promptings of Christ and came back.”
“It is beautiful to see this continuity between the first pope and our present pope, who is trying to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and do things that the world would not understand. The early Christians probably wondered why Peter gave up his life for the sake of the faith. He could have been the strong leader for the early Christians to keep their faith and hope up. But instead, they lost not just Peter but Paul, and they must have felt that everything was coming to an end.”
“But then,” he added, “we know the end of the story.”
Ashley Noronha, the Rome correspondent for the Relevant Radio Network and a professor of media training, leadership and communication, spoke about the significance of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, especially now as the Church awaits the resignation of Pope Benedict. “Every time I go into the basilica,” she said, “I am struck with the realization of the profound continuity of our faith. There we were [yesterday] morning, standing above the tomb of St. Peter, the very first pope, while at the same time preparing to say goodbye to our beloved Holy Father, the 265th Pope. And this is the same place where we’ll soon welcome the next successor of Peter. It’s amazing to think that over that span of 2,000 years, the authority of the Papacy given to Peter by Christ hasn’t changed one bit. And neither has our faith in Him.”
“The magnificence of the Basilica reminds me of the steadfastness of the Church and the beauty of the splendor of God,” she said.
Reflecting on the early Christians who would come to venerate the tomb of Peter, she noted how, in those days, “they came to Rome by boat, on horseback or on foot. It’s hard for us to imagine how difficult it must have been.”
“As we journey to the churches each morning,” she continued, “it’s a reminder of the centuries of faithful pilgrims who did the same. And how we are eternally connected to those people by our faith and love of the Lord.”