With the conclave electing the new pope about to begin, Vatican is at the center of attention. This tiny state in the Eternal City of Rome occupies only about 44 hectares yet wields tremendous power over the Catholic faithful that stretches around the world. Although Vatican City has existed in its current form only since 1929, its history goes back to the very roots of Christianity as it evolved from a persecuted sect within the Roman Empire to an empire of its own, with popes for centuries equal to kings. Prior to the unification of Italy, popes ruled over the extensive Papal States. Vatican is all that’s left of them today, reducing the pope’s power from considerably temporal, or worldly, to more purely spiritual.
The first thing that strikes anyone approaching the Vatican is the sheer size of St. Peter’s Basilica. This enormous church was built on the site believed to be the burial place of Apostle Peter, the first bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope. There have been churches on this site since the 4th century, with the current basilica completed in the 17th century and enjoying architectural contributions from artistic giants such as Michelangelo and Donato Bramante.The Basilica is an enormous structure, so big in fact that it can elude the senses. As you approach, it seems to grow in front of your eyes, irresistibly drawing the visitors in with the outstretched, open arms of the massive colonnade surrounding the St. Peter’s Square. Once inside, a reminder of the church’s size are markers etched in the floor that compare it to many other well known churches around the world. Not exactly humble but really impressive nonetheless! Inside the church is simply stunning, teeming with masterpieces such as timeless Pieta. And just like the giant exterior, the Basilica’s interior can trick the eye with its sheer size. What I found most striking was the lettering encircling the inside of the dome. It says, referring to St. Peter, “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorum.” (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”) At the first glance, it seems like any other inscription in any other church dome except… the letters are 2 metres (6.6 ft) high! It’s really hard to believe! St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica are usually filled with crowds of tourists and pilgrims so it can be hard to find a spot for quiet contemplation. I found it at the base of the Basilica’s dome looking down. Up there, regardless of one’s religion or lack thereof, your shoulders feel like at any moment they could grow angel wings to let you soar even higher and your lips involuntarily begin to whisper a prayer…
Ojcze nasz, któryś jest w niebie
święć się imię Twoje
przyjdź królestwo Twoje
bądź wola Twoja jako w niebie tak i na ziemi.
Chleba naszego powszedniego daj nam dzisiaj
i odpuść nam nasze winy,
jako i my odpuszczamy naszym winowajcom,
i nie wódź nas na pokuszenie
ale nas zbaw od złego.
Finally, the view of the city from the top of the dome is simply breath-taking, and a very special place to me (for personal rather than religious reasons). And the Vatican, despite the many trials and turbulations that the Catholic Church is currently facing, remains a symbol for believers around the world of their faith’s foundation. For Poles in particular it will always be a place where, on October 16, 1978, these words were heard from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica: Habemus Papam… Carolus Wojtyla! Standing on that balcony was a Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyła who had just been elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, adopting the name John Paul II. He made history in more ways than one on that day and over the quarter century of his pontificate. Who will follow in his foot steps?