Cathedrals: St Peter’s Basilica

I just finished an excellent book called A Pilgrimage to Eternity, a memoir about one pilgrim’s walk along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury Cathedral in England to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The book is just my kind of thing, a mix of history, theology, travel writing, and personal memoir, all by a fellow Cascadian to boot.

In the spirit of the pilgrimage, then, let’s take a trip to Rome and go on a tour of St. Peter’s.

The church is named after the St. Peter, the disciple and apostle, whom we consider to be the first pope. But it’s not just the name that bears significance; the chosen location is also important, because it’s the traditional site of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in 67 AD.

The Vatican is situated on the outskirts of ancient Rome, outside the walls, in what began as a mosquito- and malaria-ridden marsh. None other than Caligula built a circus stadium here. It was in this circus that Nero martyred many Christians after the Great Fire in 65 AD.

Our best evidence has it that St Peter and St Paul were both martyred here by Nero in 67. St Peter, famously, was crucified upside-down, considering himself unworthy to die in the same way Jesus did. His body was buried alongside other undesirables in the nearby graveyard. St. Peter’s Basilica is built exactly here, on the traditional site of St. Peter’s tomb.

Here’s a sketch showing the possible outlines of Nero’s Circus overlaid onto a map of Old St Peter’s (black lines) and the current basilica (dotted lines):

Skeptical? Many are. But recent archaeological digs actually support the tradition!

In 1939, Pope Pius XII opened the ground beneath the crypt of the basilica to archaeologists. Amid the remains of several early popes they found a small shrine (pictures to come, keep reading!) which contained several bone fragments, wrapped in expensive purple cloth and decked out in gold. This would indicate someone of great importance, buried in a graveyard for convicts and rejects. Archaeologists who analyzed the bones think they belong to a man who was in his 60s, about the right age for St. Peter.

Good enough for me—and good enough for the Catholic Church, who proclaimed them to be authentic relics of our first pope.

At the top of the page you can see St Peter’s as it’s approached from the east, along the Via della Conciliazione. The basilica looms larger as you walk west, and then, all of a sudden, the space opens out onto St Peter’s Square. The piazza is, according to travel geeks, the best public square in all of Europe.

A view from above, atop the basilica:

A panorama from ground level, looking toward the basilica:

In both images you can see a large obelisk at the center of the square. I had always wondered what this was when I’d seen pictures. As it turns out, the Roman Emperor Caligula had the obelisk shipped to Rome all the way from Egypt (where it had stood since the orders of an unknown pharaoh). It’s called “The Witness” because Caligula had it erected in the Circus of Nero, which makes it quite likely that it “witnessed” St Peter’s crucifixion in the year 67! The obelisk was moved here after the current basilica was constructed in the 16th century.

By the way: the construction of the basilica took place in the same century as the Protestant Reformation, and that’s no coincidence. The two are historically linked! The building was expensive to build, and much of the funds came through the sale of indulgences: basically, the deal was, you give a little money to help build St. Peter’s, and that buys you or your loved one a ticket out of purgatory and into heaven. The practice was the cause of enormous scandal, and it was against the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther directed his famous 95 theses in 1517.

So as grand as St. Peter’s is, it’s hard not to remember that it was financed by simony. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to just renovate the old building, rather than lose half of Europe to scandal and revolt.

Here’s a closer view of the building’s facade and front entrance. At the top, in the middle, is Christ carrying his Cross, and around him are eleven apostles. But St. Peter is missing: you can find him to the left of the stairs in the bottom left-hand corner. St. Paul (also martyred in Rome) is opposite him on the right:

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19020259

A couple years ago I heard a priest describe St. Peter’s as the architectural equivalent of a flexed bicep, and that’s certainly true from this angle. The basilica is a testament to the power and primacy (and, certainly at that time especially, the ego) of the papacy. The inscription in the center reads:

In Honor of the Prince of the Apostles, Paul the Fifth Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the Year 1612, the 7th of His Pontificate

Like I said, ego.

Let’s take a look inside. Here’s a photo of the nave, the central part of the church where the congregation usually gathers:

By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2537002

The nave guides you forward to the central dome, designed by Michelangelo himself:

Encircling the dome are Christ’s famous words to St Peter: “You are Peter (Latin petrus), and on this Rock (petram) I will build my Church . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The keys of the kingdom are symbols of authority. Peter (and by extension, the each pope) is like the man in the parable who is left in charge while the master goes out on a journey. His job is to take care of the master’s territory until the master’s return.

That’s also why the papal insignia features two crossed keys (one for loosing, one for binding):

The keys of the kingdom also show up in a bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s (I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but am I the only one seeing this?):

Maybe this is just my imagination, but doesn’t that kind of look like an old-fashioned key, pointing upward? The round piazza is where the user would hold the key, and it’s also where the building “holds” its visitors upon entry. And the basilica itself is the locking mechanism that opens the doors of the kingdom, of God’s mercy.

Sorry for that brief diversion—let’s head back inside and look underneath Michelangelo’s dome. The central altar is placed underneath a solid bronze baldacchino, which sets apart the altar as a canopied, boundaried, holy space. I like the twisted columns, which are modeled after those of the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The whole thing is nearly 100 feet tall and it’s thought to be the biggest chunk of bronze on the planet (for scale, you can see the altar at the bottom of the picture):

This is the absolute center of the basilica, the axis around which everything else was planned and constructed.

Now I’d like to head to the very back of the church, to the Chair of St. Peter. The chair (Latin cathedra, where we get the word cathedral) is a symbol of the pope’s authority to teach. It’s odd: I think we usually think of someone standing to teach, like a professor or preacher, but I noticed in reading the Gospels that Jesus typically sits down in order to teach—probably cross-legged on the floor, but perhaps using a chair. When I used to teach and preach as part of my job at a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle, I started sitting to do so. For some reason I found that I was much more effective this way. I felt more grounded, and being closer to the earth also put me closer to eye-level with the people who had gathered for chapel every evening. Maybe there’s something to it.

As with many (but not all!) relics, the authenticity of this one is debatable, but we do quite possibly have the chair of St. Peter. Most scholars date parts of the relic to the 6th century at the earliest; on the other hand, the Catholic Encyclopedia sees no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The chair is, of course, elaborately enshrined. This was done by the Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a contemporary of Michelangelo who also built the baldacchino we just saw over the altar. Check it out:

The chair itself is hidden inside Bernini’s reliquary. Here’s a photo, from the last time it was taken out:

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives more description:

[T]he oldest portion . . . is a perfectly plain oaken arm-chair with four legs connected by cross-bars. The wood is much worm-eaten, and pieces have been cut from various spots at different times, evidently for relics. To the right and left of the seat four strong iron rings, intended for carrying-poles, are set into the legs.

The original chair was elaborated and decorated over the centuries until Bernini finally placed it inside his sculpture, where it remains to this day.

A note about the rings for carrying poles: before the dawn of the “popemobile”, the tradition was to carry the pope during formal processions in a chair not unlike St. Peter’s original. It looked like this:

Pope John Paul II discontinued the practice, part of an ongoing emphasis, beginning with Vatican II, of showing a more humble papacy. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pope Francis being carried around like this. He can’t even be convinced to wear fancy shoes (and good for him!).

Having seen the nave, the altar, the dome, and the chair, we’ll take one look at the tomb of St. Peter, in the crypt of the church, directly beneath the dome and the altar:

It’s quite likely—as we discussed above—that this is the burial site of St. Peter.

Clearly, there’s a lot to see at the Vatican! Finally, we will head up and outside for some fresh air, to get a good look at the church at night:

Come to think of it, this post has been a pretty good introduction to the papacy, from its humble origins in the fisherman from Galilee and his plain wooden chair, to the ancient veneration of his tomb in the early years of the Church, through all the prestige and hubris of the papacy in the medieval era, and finally to this man, the Successor of Peter, still wearing his orthotics as he trudges around the Vatican:

Saturday Links 1/2/21

I enjoyed scrolling through all these images of Catholic churches done in a “brutalist” style, collected and explained by Catholic architect Jason John Paul Haskins. Brutalism is not necessarily the most popular sort of church architecture, but it is interesting, and it has something unique to say. Haskins explains:

The thing is, I genuinely find many of these church buildings to be sacred, inspiring, beautiful, moving, rich, worthy… And not in simply an academic or historical study; in my time in my own experience, outside considerations of their original context or the intent of their commissioners, architects, and builders. And this is especially true when I participate in their completion in worship.

If nothing else, take a quick scroll through all the pictures.


This, from Massimo Faggioli in Commonweal, is a fun and interesting look at the papacy through the lens of The Crown, which many of us binge-watched this year. The papacy is, after all, a monarchy, so similarities and parallels abound. Faggioli:

Francis has in a way upended things; more than his predecessors, he has chosen to lower the shield that ritual provides, revealing himself and the person he really is. This has injected unpredictability into the operations of the Vatican—which prizes predictability—making some of its courtiers nervous, but allowing others to thrive. In The Crown, we see this unpredictability in Diana, who as “the people’s princess” creates a kind of upheaval similar to what Francis has done in denouncing the clericalism of his brother bishops and casting himself more as part of the people of God than of the Curia. 

I didn’t expect to see Pope Francis and Princess Di mentioned in the same breath, but we are in the hopeful new year of 2021, so—let’s go! Here’s the link again if you’re interested.


I’m not sure what to make of this article from The Seattle Times, about ongoing demands for more transparency and accountability regarding the clergy’s complicity in the sex abuse crisis here in Western Washington.

Members of Heal Our Church, a Seattle-based alliance of practicing Catholics who seek a public review of how the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal secretly festered within the parishes of Western Washington, contend they’re being stonewalled by Archbishop Paul Etienne.

Heal Our Church has been seeking a meeting with the archbishop since January of last year, but of course, the coronavirus seems like an obvious mitigating circumstance. And a major, lay-led review of all this, as the article acknowledges, has already been done. But frankly, little of the hierarchy’s behavior in this matter makes me want to extend much benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, I was surprised to see the McCarrick Report mentioned at the end of the article as an example of the clergy “circling the wagons”, rather than as an unprecedented act of transparency. It seems to me that something like the McCarrick report is exactly what Heal Our Church is asking for?

Regardless, the hierarchy certainly deserves all the suspicion and scorn it receives from the media, the public, and the faithful in this matter. That and then some.

The entire article is here.

The Archdiocese of Seattle published a list of credibly accused clergy and religious, which you can find here. All have either died, been laicized, or assigned to “private prayer and penance”.

Who’s in Charge Here? Part 5, Where Peter Is

This is a wrap on my series on authority. It’s not exactly a tight-knit argument for the papacy, but rather an attempt to trace out my thinking as it evolved over the last fifteen years or so. As I’ve tried to demonstrate over the past few weeks, once I really started to dig into the Catholic understanding of authority, it arrived as good news.

Thanks for reading along!

(Update: I ended up writing an additional post with some caveats here.)


In my previous post in this series, I outlined the doctrine of apostolic succession, an idea that’s shared with certain other churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox and the Church of England. Today I’d like to discuss the one apostolic office that makes the Catholic Church unique in the Christian world: that of the Pope, the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

If you’re looking to better understand the Catholic argument for the authority of the Pope, there’s plenty of stuff out there already. So instead of trying to “prove” the papacy through various arguments, I just want to note some of the comparative advantages of a monarchical form of church governance, since this is the cause of a lot of scandal outside the Catholic world.

It’s hard to think of a higher and more scandalous assertion of the Pope’s authority than Unam Sanctam, a papal bull issued in 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII. A few quotes:

Of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter.

This authority, however, is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven‘ etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2].

Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

My first thought: yikes!

As with everything, there’s a lot of debate around the meaning and significance of Unam Sanctam. At the time it was a controversial assertion of the Pope’s authority not just over matters of faith and morals, but in fact over kings and governments and over “every human creature”.

This is a high claim to authority. Why make it?

Again, those who are looking for explanations or defenses of papal authority won’t find them here; I simply want to point out a few advantages to having the office of the papacy as a part of the Church’s structure as opposed to the other kinds of polity we find in the Christian world.

First, the capacity for reform.

When Angelo Roncalli was elected as Pope in 1958, he was chosen as a “stop-gap” pope: basically, the cardinals thought he would keep the seat warm for a few years and not try anything too crazy. But instead of doing the expected, Pope John XXIII became one of the most consequential in history by calling the Second Vatican Council. The Council turned out to be probably the most dramatic reform of the Catholic Church ever, in which she “opened the windows” to the modern world after centuries spent in a defensive huddle.

So much for just keeping the seat warm! Once he was elected, it didn’t matter why the cardinals chose him. He was invested with the authority to pastor the Church until his death. As pope, his call for a council couldn’t be dismissed or rejected. He had the singular authority to call one, and so every bishop in the world was required to come to Rome and set about the work of reforming the Church.

It’s difficult to imagine such a drastic reform as Vatican II happening in any other sort of institution of such a large scale. Institutions naturally resist change! In a large corporation, for example, a CEO who tried to make radical changes is likely to be dismissed by the board of directors, especially if she has no clear mandate. Or in the United States’ system of government, separation of powers and narrow majorities make it very difficult to reform a system that isn’t working (as we all well know!).

But because in the Catholic Church, it is universally acknowledged that the Pope, together with the bishops, is invested with the authority to make changes to the Church’s teachings, liturgy, culture, and approach, Vatican II, while remaining a source of controversy, continues to be a wellspring for the ongoing work of Church reform.

Second, a visible unity.

Other churches have hierarchical systems of church governance—Methodists, Anglicans, and the Orthodox all come to mind—but none of these have a single visible leader and so all of them have, in recent years, proven vulnerable to the kind of division where there are competing claims to legitimacy. When division arises between two competing factions, whose job is it to give a ruling one way or another? Catholics have a pope for that. As St. Ambrose said, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”

I discussed the need for an authoritative interpreter in part three, so I won’t re-hash the argument here. I only wish to say that precisely because the authority of the pope is clear and final—the “court of last resort”, borrow an American phrase—it’s pretty simple for a layperson to know what to do in a time of crisis: stick with the pope. It’s not necessary to know the ins and outs of every argument about faith and morals. You only have to, so far as you can, stand with the Bishop of Rome and you’re on pretty solid ground.

Third, passing judgment on the state.

Unam Sanctam, the papal bull we mentioned at the beginning of this post, caused an outrage among kings and governors because in it the Pope claimed authority not alongside government, but over it.

We in the United States find this to be a foreign concept, and maybe even an offensive one, because the separation of church and state is an essential part of our constitution here. And we’ve also been conditioned by a general Protestant sensibility that says, following Luther, that the state and the church each have ultimate authority in their own separate spheres.

But Catholicism claims that the sphere of political authority is not separate from the authority of the Church, but rather subject to it. Thus, the teachings of Christ through the Church cannot be simply set aside when you assume the office of, say, President or Supreme Court justice. Awareness of this claim to ultimate authority is exactly why mass immigration of Catholics to the United States in the 19th century caused so much anxiety. This was not without cause! There is often essential conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of the Church, and the Church teaches that her own teachings must be given precedence.

Scandalous though that may be, let’s consider for a second how important it is that the state be put in check from time to time. For example, what if the pilot of Enola Gay had been a good Catholic and refused to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945? What if Catholics in the United States had, following the Pope in 1839, condemned the slave trade and refused to take part in it? What if the Spanish colonizers of the Americas had heeded the pope’s teachings on the full humanity of the native peoples of the Americas?

Seen from this angle, the problem hasn’t been that Catholics give too much deference to the pope, but rather too little. We have been far too willing to cede to Caesar what rightfully belongs to God.


I hope this series has been a useful summary of my thoughts on authority in Christianity as they’ve developed over the last few years. If you have questions, objections, or comments, I hope you’ll comment below. I’d certainly be willing to extend the series in response to readers’ input.

(Update: a final post on the primacy of conscience here.)

Who’s In Charge Here? Part 3, The Fail Mary

In my previous post on this I discussed some of the downsides of the kind of “me and my Bible” approach to authority towards which sola scriptura tends to lead us. Rugged spiritual individualism (like any go-it-alone approach to life) looks like freedom, but it’s a lonely road, and it’s easy to get lost.

I’d like to do something a little more difficult than deconstructing sola scriptura and argue for the necessity of a living interpreter as the final source of authority and unity in times of crisis.

By way of analogy, let’s remember together a famous bit of Seahawks history.

(If you’re not from around here, the Seahawks are our local American football team.)

Playing at home against the Packers, the Seahawks are down 12-7. It’s 4th and 10 and the ‘Hawks are 24 yards from the endzone. There’s just 8 seconds left on the clock, and the only way to win is to score a touchdown. I wish I could embed the video but the NFL is strict about these kinds of things, so you can watch what happens here.

Well, what do you think? Did the refs make the right call?

That’s debatable. From one angle, it looks like Green Bay intercepted the ball in the endzone, which would make it a touchback and give Green Bay the game, 12-7. But Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver, had two hands on the ball, too, which could arguably make it a touchdown, and the Seahawks would win 13-12. You could argue about this for days, and in fact, NFL fans did exactly that. It was an enormously controversial call, still known as the “Fail Mary”.

Now, what do you think? Who won the game?

The Seahawks, unquestionably. Why? Because in an NFL game, the referee is the living interpretive authority. The Seahawks won because, on a play that was both high-stakes and controversial, the referee called a touchdown.

Again by way of analogy, let’s talk about how professional football doesn’t work.

First, we might note how there’s no appeal to the rulebook here, although the referee is obligated to make a judgment in accordance with the rules of play. But the rulebook cannot, in and of itself, render judgment on a particular play. The rulebook needs to be interpreted by a living authority in order to apply to an ambiguous situation.

Second, Green Bay doesn’t get to say, “We strongly disagree with the call, so we’re starting our own league.” They can’t take their ball and go home. If they want to play in the NFL, they have to accept the rulings of the referees, like it or not.

Finally, we can note how the referee doesn’t say, “Well, hey, let each team interpret the game how they prefer. Green Bay, you can call this a win and we’ll put it in your record as such. Seahawks, same goes to you.” The players are not free to interpret the rules for themselves or to decide whether they won or lost. There would be no NFL at all if that’s how it worked, because it would be impossible to know which team really won or lost.

Imagine trying to have professional football without referees. It would never work! While you can certainly play backyard football without refs, anytime you want to play a high-stakes game on a large scale, you need that living authority to be an official arbiter. And you have to continue to accept that authority even if you disagree with a particular judgment. Without that, you don’t have a league at all.

I hope the analogy here is obvious: the referee here is what Catholics call the magisterium, a Latin term for the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops. The magisterium is the living interpretive authority that makes the tough calls and keeps the league together.

Let me also suggest that this is actually what most Protestant traditions are actually doing. All the Protestant denominations have a person or body, whether that’s the General Assembly or the Board of Elders or the Queen of England, that make the final call on contentious issues. And while there’s an obligation to discern what Scripture says, that body has the authority to make a call within that denomination.

So the question has never been, “What does the Bible say?”

The question has always been, rather, about who has the authority to interpret, and where such authority comes from.

The question the chief priests ask Jesus in Mark 11 is still the right one:

“Who gave you authority to do this?”

Click here for part four.