When you stand in St. Peter's Square you're in the heart of the Catholic world. This square is without any exaggeration the Mecca of the Roman Catholic faith. And it's certainly majestic enough with it's crowd of no less than 162 saints stood towering around you atop a forest of 284 pillars. The whole thing was designed by the ubiquitous Bernini and is built on top of millenia of history and myth. Way beneath the flagstones lies a huge pagan burial ground and on top of that the equally impressive Circus of Nero, a chariot racing track as large as the Circus Maximus. And that's the reason this is all here. Just like Circus Maximus, Nero's Circus was also used for staged combat and the execution of prisoners. Including one very famous prisoner indeed. St. Peter.
For Catholics St. Peter is the third most important figure after Jesus and Mary in the whole thing. Because Peter was the first ever Pope and thus the embodiment of the central tenant of the existence of the priesthood. That the Pope is god's chosen and infalliable mouth piece on earth with an effective direct dial number staight to the big man himself. And all this can be traced back to the gospel of Matthew chapter 16 verse 18. Jesus says to Peter:
".thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
King James Bible, Matthew 16:18.
And they quite literally did build their church upon Peter.
It was around 67 AD that Peter, the prince of the apostles, was crucified during the first wave of persecutions of Christians.
The apocryphal gospels state that Peter was crucified upside down at his own request so that people would not equate his martyrdom with Jesus. This is possibly true as bored Roman soldiers would occasionally crucify people in odd positions for entertainment value.
Legend has it that some of the Christians fortunate enough not to be eaten by lions or nailed to crosses that day, immediately took Peter's body and buried it in the cemetery.
Peter's successor Pope Anacletus, built a small chapel over the tomb. It immediately became a place of worship and pilgrimage for early Christians, later Popes, and those who came to Rome in spite of the risks of persecutions.
There is recent evidence that actually backs this story up. A skeleton was discovered entombed beneath the Papal Alter that had missing feet. This suggests that the unfortunate was cut down after being hung by the ankles. The remains are that of a 60 to 70 year old man as Peter would have been. There was even a piece of plaster in the tomb marked 'Petros Eni' meaning 'Peter is within.'
The persecutions came to an end under Emperor Constantine, who believed the cross was a sign of victory. He built the first basilica over the entire cemetery and part of the Circus.
If you were there in 327AD you might have seen the Roman Emperor remove his rich robes, fall to his knees and begin digging the foundations with his own hands, filling and carrying away twelve baskets of earth, one for each apostle.
In the decades after the first basilica was built, it was embellished with a portico, or covered entrance, that soon became a preferred burial place for popes, kings and emperors who wanted their final resting places near that of St. Peter.
Peter's successors also chose the site as their seat, and it was there that relics from the Holy Land such as the Holy Cross, St. Veronica's veil, and the lance that had pierced the side of Christ were kept. Much of the treasure that they accumulated is no longer here. The interior of the first basilica was once resplendent with rare marble, mosaics of all colours, shining metals, draperies, tapestries and precious stones, and the floor around the tomb of St. Peter was covered with gold and silver. These priceless treasures were stolen when the shrine was sacked over centuries by invading armies.
After twelve centuries, the glorious basilica, where twenty-three emperors had been crowned, began to show the ravages of time. In 1506 Pope Julius II laid the first stone of this new basilica and started construction that was to last for one hundred and twenty years. That building is the one you see before you now. It is the second largest church in Christianity, covering almost 6 acres with the capacity to hold over 60,000 people.
The balcony in the centre of St Peter's basilica is the balcony. The very one where the Pope comes out to do his thing when the square is thronged with the faithful clutching rosary beads.
When Pope John Paul the second died on April the second 2005 around three million pilgrims flooded the city temporarily doubling the population of Rome. People camped here in the square overnight and qeueud for eight hours or more to pay their respects to the Popes body displayed in the church.
For seventeen days black smoke came from the Vatican while the cardinals pontificated on the new pontiff. Then white smoke was seen as Pope Benedict the sixteenth was named. Three hundred and fifty thousand people came to witness his inaugral address right here in the square.
In that context queueing for an hour or two to get in doesn't seem so bad anymore does it?