Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Vatican: A Papal Audience, the Vatican Necropolis, and St. Peter's Tomb

We had two items on today's agenda: attending a Papal audience and visiting the tomb of Saint Peter and the Necropolis under the Vatican Basilica.

I was able to get tickets to this morning's Papal audience a few months ago. We got an early start, and by 8 a.m. we had procured relatively good seats. Pope Francis started the Audience a good half an hour earlier than we had been expecting; I didn't see him until he had finished driving around the Square, mostly because as soon as he (in his Popemobile) arrived, most of the crowd stood on their chairs to see him, which completely negated any chance I had to see what was going on.

Ed took this picture while he was standing on his chair, and even then he
couldn't see clearly and wasn't sure if he was getting Pope Francis in a picture.
You can see Pope Francis on the giant screen in the background.

After awhile, folks calmed down, and a litany of priests and cardinals came out, each doing a reading in a different language, among them Italian, English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, what was either Polish or Russian, and one or two more languages. After Pope Francis gave his homily (which he interjected with more personal remarks that were not translated), priests or cardinals came out one by one to summarize the homily in a different language and to advise the crowd what would come next: the Apostolic blessing, which was extended to the pilgrims' family and friends; a blessing of any religious articles we had brought; and concluding with a singing of the Our Father in Latin.

Today was also Pope Francis' 78th birthday, so there were birthday greetings extended in different languages on behalf of the pilgrims. Because Ed and I had arrived relatively early, we got good seats and could see clearly.

From Rome & Vatican City (December 2014)

The entire audience lasted perhaps 90 minutes.

I had also arranged for a tour of the Vatican Necropolis, which was scheduled for this afternoon. Photography wasn't allowed, which was probably just as well, because things were so dark, but this was a great tour. We saw multiple layers of burial sites, various coffins and tombs, including those of first century citizens and Popes from the 12th century and later. (Perhaps there were Popes tombs from earlier times, but I missed those.)

What was especially interesting was the difference between the burial layers themselves. Pagans were buried alongside Christians, and our guide, an archaeologist, was able to translate different ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions. She also drew our attention to architectural and burial symbolism, such as the mark of a Christian and the significance (especially during times of the illegality of Christianity, or a Christian woman married to a pagan man who respected her religious beliefs). The lower levels of the Necropolis were indeed very much a city, with doorways and streets, twists and turns; with stone, concrete, marble, and brick building materials, some replacing others due to construction or excavation; and quite a few frescoes or painted walls. It was humid and a lot of walking over uneven surfaces; I could see how one might suffer a bit from claustrophobia during portions.

The last portion of the tour included seeing burial sites of the more contemporary Popes (if this could extend to include some of the 13th century Popes). Man of the more recent Popes' tombs were of course in wonderful condition; many of those from earlier times were well-preserved, but the amount of information carved into the tombs was altogether different: Some included quite extensive inscriptions, while others were much more succinct. All in Latin, of course, which meant I still had no idea what was said, but I'm guessing that in the cases of the earlier Popes, the inscriptions simply stated who was buried, and in later cases provided a fuller biographical epitaph.

We also saw a beautiful altar and adoration section dedicated specifically to St. Peter, one that was placed directly over his tomb, which we were able to see a few levels below. Our tour leader was fantastic; she clearly knew her stuff, threw a lot of in-depth information at us...and we could touch many of the old tombs, walls, and surroundings, and climb in and out of some of the smaller rooms. It was just another way of connecting with the past that added to the experience.

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