The majestic and inspiring Basilica of Saint Peter on the Vatican Hill within the city of Rome stands as monument to faith and a testimony to the Christian confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Here are eleven surprising facts about this universal house of prayer that can inspire us on our journey of faith.
Fact #1: The Vatican is the smallest country in the world.
At 109 acres, about eight Vatican City States could fit within Central Park in New York City. While the Vatican is small, its independence assures the pope’s freedom to teach and shepherd without coercion, interference, or hindrance from any other country or influence.
Fact #2: The pope is defended by the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
Since the fifteenth century the popes have been defended by the Swiss Guard. Although they mostly perform ceremonial functions, the Guards are skilled soldiers in the Swiss Army, highly trained in security operations, who are sent to the Vatican and are committed to the pope’s protection. There are approximately 130 men in the military unit. Their motto is “Fiercely and Faithfully” and refers to their defense of the pope.
Fact #3: The World Series could be played in the space of St. Peter’s Square.
St. Peter’s Square was designed after the construction and papal consecration of the new basilica. It was completed by the Baroque master, Bernini, between 1656-1667 AD. Today, the great Square greets pilgrim and visitor alike. It is 1,000 feet long and 750 feet wide. Wrigley Field could fir within the square twice (with space to spare). The World Series could be played in St. Peter’s Square, and approximately 250,000 people could fit within it.
Fact #4: There was no image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Peter’s Square until 1981.
When the unexplained movement of the bullet from the attempted assassination was told to Pope John Paul II, he said: “One hand shot (the would-be assassin) and another hand guided (the Blessed Virgin Mary).” The assassination attempt had been made on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life. In honor of Mary’s intervention, the pope placed the would-be assassin’s bullet in the crown of Our Lady while on pilgrimage to Fatima in 1982. The pope also ordered a mosaic image of Mary to adorn the square. No other image or statue of Mary was present until the mosaic was placed there in December of 1981.
Fact #5: The Holy Doors are only opened once every twenty-five years (or for extraordinary jubilees).
The Holy Doors of St. Peter’s are only opened for Jubilee Years, which are ordinarily held every twenty-five years. The Jubilee Year is a devotional retrieval of the Old Testament practice, and is announced as an appointed time of grace and conversion, hope and joy. The last Jubilee Year was in the year 2000. In April, 2015, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Bull declaring an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy to begin with the opening of the Holy Doors on December 8, 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.
Fact #6: The Pieta is the only autographed work of Michelangelo.
After the Pieta’s unveiling, Michelangelo overheard people attributing the work to other artists and became enraged. He placed the inscription, “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, Maker” on a small ribbon across the statue’s chest. Later, however, he returned and was filled with remorse over this display of pride. To counter his vanity, the artists made a private vow never to sign another work of art, and he remained faithful to that vow. The Pieta is the only autographed work of Michelangelo.
Fact #7: The Super Bowl could be played in the 611-foot nave.
Nave comes from the Latin word for “ship,” and is the word used for the central aisle of the a church. St. Peter’s nave was an addition by the master artist Maderno to Michelangelo’s original design. The new plan required the elongation of the eastern wing to 611 feet, which is now the nave of the current basilica.
Fact #8: The Altar of St. Sebastian is the resting place of Pope St. John Paul II.
The first altar to the right of the nave is dedicated to St. Sebastian, patron of athletes and soldiers. However, it is most well-known as the resting place of the body of Pope St. John Paul II. He was moved to this altar after his beatification. The tomb of the third longest-serving pope in the history of the Catholic Church is highly revered and visited by thousands every week. Special ushers are assigned to facilitate the crowds at the tomb throughout the day.
Fact #9: The feet of St. Peter’s statue have been worn down.
The figure of the chief apostle sits in the right transept of the basilica. The feet of the statue, especially its right foot, have been worn down by the pious caresses of pilgrims throughout the centuries. This is ironic since the statue is in close proximity to the resting place of St. Peter, which holds most of the saint’s body, except his feet. The statue seems to share the fate of the actual apostle.
Fact #10: A space shuttle could fit within the area of the dome.
The dome of St. Peter’s is massive, more than 100 feet higher than the US Capitol in Washington, DC, which is 287.5 feet. A space shuttle, with its external rockets and fuel tank, could fit comfortably within the area of the dome.
Fact #11: The Basilica is built on the very bones of St. Peter.
St. Peter’s bones were always believed to be beneath the place where the basilica now stands, but their exact location was never specifically known. They were accidentally discovered in the middle of the twentieth century, and in 1968, after decades of scientific tests, Pope Paul VI announced that the bones in question were truly those of the Apostle Peter himself. Literally, on the bones of St. Peter the majestic basilica is built, and on this first pope, who declared to the Lord Jesus – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” – the Church is built.
Editor’s Note: Discover another ninety other inspiring facts in the new book, 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter’s and the Vatican by St. Benedict Press.
Special thanks to Roma Experience (who offers Jubilee Tours of Rome and Vatican City) for sharing this article.
All Photos, unless otherwise attributed, are copyrights of St. Benedict Press and are here used with the express permission of the publisher.
Photo CC: Gary Ullah
Photo CC: Zheng
Photo CC: Charles Kalser (cropped)
Photo CC: Bill Bereza
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