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VATICAN LETTER Apr-21-2006 (720 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

St. Peter's Basilica: 500 years represent masterpiece of art, faith

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With Pope Julius II reigning, 1506 was a big year for the Vatican: The Swiss Guard was formed, the Vatican Museums were founded and the first stone was laid for the new Basilica of St. Peter.

While the basilica will have to wait until this October for its chance to host an exhibit at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI marked the April 18 anniversary of the stone-laying ceremony.

Calling the basilica a "masterpiece of art and faith," the pope said the whole world has admired "the powerful harmony of its form."

He offered thanks to the popes who guided its almost 130-year construction and commissioned embellishments over the centuries, the great artists who worked on it and the personnel of the Fabbrica di San Pietro who continue to welcome visitors and clean up after them.

"May the happy event of the 500th anniversary reawaken in all Catholics the desire to be 'living stones' for the construction of the holy church in which the light of Christ will shine through concrete charity and witness before the world," the pope said.

Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, archpriest of the basilica, presented a calendar of commemorative events at an April 20 press conference: a special Mass of thanksgiving on the June 29 feast of Sts. Peter and Paul; the exhibit, which will run six months; a Jan. 19, 2007, scholarly conference on the figure of St. Peter; and the release of special stamps and coins.

The events, he said, are designed to highlight "the religious, historical and artistic importance" of the basilica, which still functions today as a "true work of first evangelization," giving visitors a taste of the beauty and solidity of Christian faith.

Antonio Paolucci, an art historian serving as curator of the autumn exhibit, said the story of the basilica is mind-boggling.

"In ancient Rome -- a city we would describe today as having been multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious -- a simple Jew is executed and buried alongside a road on the edge of the city," he said.

"The amazing thing," he said, "is that someone built a memorial over this out-of-the-way tomb and over time this memorial grew into the grandest church in the world."

The oldest trace of the memorial to St. Peter is a bit of graffiti scrawled on a piece of red-tinted wall. Dated to sometime shortly before the year 200, it reads "Petros Eni" (Peter is here).

The small chunk of wall containing the writing will be one of the items put on display in October.

St. Peter was "a humble Jew buried without honor" in an unimportant cemetery, Paolucci said, "yet some of the most important artists and architects have worked on the church" erected over his tomb.

Michelangelo, Raphael, Donato d' Agnolo Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini are among hundreds of artists who had a hand in making the basilica "the most recognizable symbol of the Catholic Church," he said.

French Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, former rector of Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute, is organizing the scholarly conference on St. Peter.

He told reporters St. Peter's role as the first among the apostles is confirmed throughout the Bible, despite the fact that at times he is depicted as being presumptuous, fearful or completely lacking understanding about Jesus' mission.

While the basilica is built over St. Peter's tomb, Cardinal Vanhoye said, the church is built on Christ.

"The church always has been very careful to emphasize the difference between its founder, Jesus Christ, and 'the rock,'" St. Peter, whom he chose to lead the church on earth, Cardinal Vanhoye said. "Christ is the only savior. Peter, a sinner, was saved by him."

While the "Petros Eni" inscription is so important that the October exhibit will go by the same name, Cardinal Marchisano said that, unfortunately, it is not the only graffiti found in the basilica.

"Visitors frequently are writing on the walls," he said, especially the exterior walls of Michelangelo's grand dome. "You would not believe how much scribbling we clean off each week."

At least, he said, visitors who go up to the dome buy a ticket for the visit, so the income from ticket sales forms the bulk of the basilica's budget for cleaning and maintenance.


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