St. Peter’s and the Vatican

The city of Rome has a distinction that no other city can claim. It has an independent country housed right in the center of town. The Vatican is its own independent entity. It’s tiny, internationally influential, has its own euro-design coin (each European Union country has its own designs), and operates its own postal service. Use their mail service when sending postcards. I once did a test. I mailed two cards on the same afternoon, one from the Vatican and the other across the street via the Italian postal service. The Vatican card took 5 days; the Italian card took 3 weeks. Within this tiny country are two major tourist sites: Saint Peter’s Cathedral and the Vatican Museum.

How did Rome get to have a country within the city? I won’t get into the details, but here’s a brief explanation. Around AD 40 Emperor Caligula reclaimed a marshy area of land and began the construction of a circus on the site. Emperor Nero completed the building of said circus around AD 55. The large obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square marks the turn around point for chariot races. It was on this site where Nero executed innumerable Christians after blaming them for the great horrific fires that devastated Rome in AD 64. One of these was the Apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples. He was crucified upside down, thinking himself unworthy to die right side up in the same manner as Jesus. He was buried on the northwest side of a growing necropolis reserved for the poor. Around AD 330 Emperor Constantine had the necropolis leveled off and began the construction of a basilica to honor the Prince of Apostles, St. Peter, which was completed about AD 349. This structure was 275 feet by 200 feet, and at its center, directly over the tomb of St. Peter, was a marble monument to the Saint. Constantine officially recognized Christianity in the Roman Empire, and the basilica he built became the official center for what later became known as the Roman Catholic Church. The leader of Catholic Church was given the title Pope who governed not only the church and its religious duties but also the city. For centuries the pope was referred to as “King Pope.”

Shortly after Constantine the political entity known as Rome fell, but the Christian church centered there continued to thrive. The original building was redecorated and remodeled several times for the next 1,000 years. At this time the building was in such a state of disrepair that the only solution was to demolish it and build anew. On April 18, 1506 construction began on what is now known as St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Vatican, a palatial home for the Pope. Leading artists of the time contributed to the design and construction, chief among them, renaissance artists Bernini, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The cathedral was consecrated on November 18th, 1626. At the heart of the new basilica, in its very center, under Michelangelo’s incredible dome and Bernini’s bronze altar, lies the original burial place and bones of Saint Peter.

Due to its heritage and religious/political influence, the Vatican remained independent over the centuries. Even when Italy once again became an independent state in 1870 it was the Vatican that exercised its authority by not recognizing Italy as an independent country until 1929. Today the Vatican is the religious capital to over 800,000 Catholics worldwide. It felt like all of them were there during our visit.

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