‘But I’m not Catholic’: Why You Should Explore St. Peter’s Basilica
Technically, the 110 acre area within the walls of the Vatican City exists as an independent state located in the Italian capital, Rome. Considering there are on estimate 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, millions of people flock into St Peter’s Square each year in an attempt to see the Pope, or to simply bask in the ambience of the city itself. I imagine many of these people are Catholics, seeing their visit as a pilgrimage to the birthplace of their religion, as Anglicans travel to Canterbury, Jews visit The Wailing Wall and Muslims trek to Mecca.
But Dan and I are not Catholics. We are not even religious. So what really drew us to spend a day waiting to see a church for a religion we don’t even belong to?
I made the call. A few weeks before we flew out to Rome, I made a rough itinerary (like the sad, micro-manager I am) and confidently placed the Vatican City as the ‘Day Two’ focus. Many people feel they simply cannot go to Rome without visiting the home of Catholicism, and part of the wonder of Rome is visiting the vast collection of churches. Did you know that the tallest buildings in Rome are mostly churches? But with lines that have lasted more than three hours, I can see why people who plan to go in the Basilica decide against it, and I can see why many people simply just avoid the area altogether.
Looking at advice, we found that the best time to visit the Vatican is in the early afternoon. Much in the same way that everyone in four-star Majorca hotels literally race for the best sunbed at 9am, hordes of people race to get in line to see the Basilica and the Vatican Museum – where you can find the Sistine Chapel. In an attempt to be sensible, we arrived at the Basilica at around 4pm, after a walk around the museum. I had a blister the size of a Euro on the ball of my foot and it felt like I was eternally stepping on a Lego. I almost suggested we get a taxi back to the hotel: exhaustion was taking over and it was about 30 degrees. Dan pushed me on.
Overall, the queue took us about an hour and 15 minutes to get through, and ‘Why am I here? Why did I decide to do this? I’m not even Catholic.’ continued to press through my mind. Don’t get me wrong, the exterior of the church is grand, elaborate and beautiful, but my own fatigue was the most important thing at that point. The late afternoon sun was sweltering, beating down on the both of us, turning my skin crimson. You are also expected to cover your shoulders and knees when entering cathedrals, so I was sweating and being scalded at the same time: not entirely a comfortable wait to say the least.
Since he loves a panorama, Dan convinced me to climb the dome, so we rushed through before the 6pm closing time. I could feel the tears welling behind my eyes at the second I looked at the sign that said there were 500 steps, but Dan’s enthusiasm nudged me along. The first stage is a climb to the balcony in the dome, overlooking the centre of the Basilica, and it was reaching here that I felt something different. When we reached this point, the priests below were leading a worship service, and I was fascinated. I have worked in a Church of England school, and seen numerous services, but nothing quite as beautiful and spiritual as this. Although I felt like a bit of a peeping tom, the soft sounds of the prayers reached upwards towards us. The perfect notes of their songs danced in the vibrations of the air. Dan wanted to move on but I could have stayed forever.
We then clambered into the dome, navigating a horrifically stuffy, thin, curved path, where I had to stop a few times to catch my breath. I am a relatively fit person, but the combination of heat, height and horrible agony was draining. Then we had to squeeze ourselves into a tiny circular staircase, which might well have been the steepest and perilous staircase I’ve climbed, before emerging onto to the external balcony. Such a torturous climb was just about worth it for the views across St Peter’s Square and Roman rooftops are breathtaking.
However, I was truly swept away by the inside of the Basilica. Even if you are not interested in it as a place of worship, go to see the extensive wealth acquired over centuries splashed across ornate walls. There are classical, white sculptures three times your size lining walls, looking over everyone who visits, reaching out towards you; gilded engraved borders that reflect rays of light; and bold, decorative panels. People drift, staring in awe at the setting, exactly as I did, as the sheer size is incredible. Suddenly, I understood what the wait was for and I now realise that I had completely forgotten about the agony in my foot. Surprisingly, there was not the same level of supervision as in the Sistine Chapel: we were able to meander freely, without aggressive barks of instruction from security every few minutes to be in a certain area, or to be silent, as all seemed either to understand the gravity of their location, or were so taken aback by the surroundings they could not misbehave. While walking through the church, I couldn’t help but feel something there, something spiritual. I could feel the hairs on my neck tingling and an overwhelming sense of calm. Without doubt, it was the most uncanny sensation I had ever felt, but I suddenly understood why so many people go there, and why so many people are Catholic.
Seriously, wait in the line. Go. Regardless of The Vatican’s arguably problematic history, you will have a completely personal experience. You may even develop an appreciation for a different faith or belief system, and in my opinion, the world needs a bit more of that.
Categories: Euro Tripper