For those of you who might be making a trip to Rome soon (and since a lot of people arrive at this blog via search engine), I wanted to share a few details about St. Peter’s in the Vatican that are quite interesting, but easy to miss.
1. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel
While many people inside are in pure tourist mode – snapping photos, posing for pictures, talking, and so forth – it shall not be so for you! You will also make your visit to St. Peter’s a prayerful one. But the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which has Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for several hours each day, is something that you could miss. One, because of its location and the fact that a big curtain covers its entrance; two, because it is a little trickier to get to.
To get to this Chapel and make your visit to Jesus, turn right immediately upon entering the Basilica. You will first see the Michelangelo’s famous Pietà (behind glass, because a crazy man attacked it with a hammer in 1972…). As you continue along the right side, your next stop will be the side chapel that houses the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II. It is hard to miss: there are usually tons of people praying there, or a Mass being celebrated (depending upon the time of day). Continue along this right side and the next major chapel will be the one you see in the photo above. There is a guard standing there to control who enters; sometimes, when the chapel is particularly full, they will make you wait a bit.
No photographs are allowed inside the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (you will probably see/hear some being taken anyway, and sometimes a guard trying to stop it). Take note of the painting of the Most Holy Trinity behind the colossal tabernacle: it is the only altar painting in the whole Basilica. All of the other big “paintings” behind the Basilica’s various altars are, in reality, mosaic reproductions. Also notice the adoring angels on either side of the tabernacle. These were designed by the famous artist Bernini. The one on the left is adoring Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament; the one on the right is adoring Christ present in you.
2. The marker for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York
After you exit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel you will likely head over towards the central dome area. And with views like this above you, it is easy to miss what is below you.
There is often a barricade up in front of the central area that leads to the main altar of the Basilica, so you will be standing back from that a bit. Down the central strip of marble in the floor (i.e., where the central aisle of the basilica is when all the chairs are set up), there are markers inlaid in the marble at certain points. These markers show the length of different famous churches in relation to the length of St. Peter’s. So look for the marker for St. Patrick’s in the floor. But beware: it is in Latin, and the Latin doesn’t look a whole lot like the corresponding English words, in this case.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that from the very back wall of the Basilica, where Bernini’s famous Holy Spirit window is, to this point in the floor, is the entire length of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Trust me, when you see it in person you will be amazed at how relatively small St. Patrick’s is.)
By the way, when you look back up at the dome, reflect upon the fact that a space shuttle (or the Statue of Liberty) could stand up inside it and not touch the top.
3. The other Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Sometimes the curtained Blessed Sacrament Chapel is closed (for example, in later afternoon), or anyway, you might just want to spend some more time in prayer later in your visit. Directly to the left of the main altar – the one under the canopy, or “baldacchino” – there is an area called a transept. (The footprint of the church is in a cross shape, and the transepts are the left and right arms of the cross.) In the very back of the left transept is an altar with a newer mosaic above it – of St. Joseph (I think Pope John XXIII or Pope Paul VI had that mosaic installed). And there is a tabernacle on the altar. You can go into this area to pray.
Sometimes is might be a little tricky to get over to this area, depending upon how the barricades are set up on a given day. But when you get over there, there will be a guard and you can just indicate that you want to go pray.
This altar (and the ones around it) are used first thing in the morning for priests’ private Masses, and there are also several public Masses a day on the central altar dedicated to St. Joseph. As long as you are discreet, you can walk around and view the different altars when you are in this area.
4. Outside: the spot where Mehmet Ali-Agca tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II
On May 13, 1981, a Turkish man named Mehmet Ali-Agca made an attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life in St. Peter’s Square, as the Pope was riding around in an open-top popemobile during a public audience.
Amidst the cobblestones in the Square there is a small white marble plaque that commemorates the very spot where he was shot. On it is JPII’s coat of arms and the date of the assassination attempt in roman numerals.
But it is very easy to miss, because it is usually closed in with a bunch of barricades. Here is how it was when I recently saw it:
Here is an aerial shot of the Square, showing the approximate location of the plaque. Whenever you come to St. Peter’s, see if you can find it!
Blessed Pope John Paul II, pray for us!