Ms. Penelope’s Vatican tour

By Dennis Gruending

Penelope's TourMy wife Martha and I spent two weeks recently in Italy, where we paid several visits to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. There were crowds throughout the day but I read in a guidebook that if one arrived at 9:45 a.m. at the visitor centre found off to the side of the square, there was a guided tour on offer for free. So it was that we fell under the influence and tutelage of an older middle-aged British woman named Penelope on a tour that transported me in a wink to my years as a primary school student being taught the Jesus and I catechism by Ursuline sisters. “Who made the world?” the sisters would ask us, reading from the small book containing questions, answers, Biblical stories and brightly displayed images of angels, saints and Christ on the cross. “God made the world,” we answered in unison. “Who is God?” came the second question. “God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things,” said the book – but we had already been coached in the answers and the sisters expected us to know them.  This little book was a child’s abridged version of the famous Baltimore Catechism, a compilation in 1885 of 1400 questions and answers that were used to guide the Catholic faithful until the 1960s.

When I first saw Penelope I thought that she, too, might well be a religious sister. She wore a sensible black suit and even more sensible flat-heeled shoes but her blue-framed glasses and matching scarf did hint at some fashion vanity. She told us as we began that she is a mother of four and a grandmother who has lived in Italy for decades and has volunteered to lead Vatican tours for more than 25 years. By now the square was beginning to fill up with visitors queuing in long lines to pass through the scanners before entering the cavernous church. We were only four in our small group, which included a young Jewish couple from Israel.

The square

Penelope, after a few preliminaries, led us into St. Peter’s Square — actually it is not a square but rather a large an oval space in front of the basilica and framed by a set of elliptical colonnades. This day it contained thousands of grey chairs that had seated pilgrims attending Pope Benedict XVI’s audience of the previous day. Penelope said the outdoor space can accommodate 35,000 people and the basilica’s interior can hold 15,000. It was remarkable, she said, how every one of the people attending the outdoor audience would leave convinced that the pope had looked into their heart, knew them by name and had spoken, individually, to each of them. She pointed across the square to a brownish brick building of about five storeys that rises behind the colonnade. The pope’s bedroom was to be found behind the window at the building’s extremity, she said, and his study was one window over. “Look, he has his window open this morning,” she said. “He must want some breeze.”  She said that everyone had loved Pope John Paul II and that there was some apprehension when Joseph Ratzinger was elected by the other cardinals as the successor. She did not say so but Ratzinger had long been called the pope’s Rottweiler, and had served as John Paul’s enforcer of orthodoxy among those priests and theologians, particularly liberation theologians, who were considered to be wayward.  “Cardinal Ratzinger had such a reputation and we were concerned,” Penelope admitted, “but we needn’t have been. He has turned out to be just delightful and he’s so gentle.”

My wife had during this explanation been looking up at the figures of 140 saints, all of them male as far as she could tell, perched on the top of Bernini’s colonnades encircling the square. “Women aren’t very well represented among the saints,” she said. Penelope paused for some time and then said, “That’s not quite true.” She went on to explain that someone had actually brought this dearth of women in the square to the attention of Pope John Paul, who was extremely devoted to the Virgin Mary. She said that as a result he had a mosaic in Mary’s honour placed into the outer wall of the Sistine Chapel. Penelope pointed up to it but it was difficult to make out at that distance. Then she used her cell phone to call ahead so that we could jump the queue of tourists and pilgrims that had been forming since early in the morning. Some were praying the rosary as they inched their way forward in the line; others were wearing blue or yellow caps or bandanas so that they would not become separated from their group. Two brown-habited sisters leading a tour were holding aloft yellow sunflowers made of paper and wire as a way to keep their pilgrims together. Penelope ushered us past security and through a portico and showed us a panel in one of the basilica’s huge bronze doors depicting St. Peter being crucified upside down. Penelope said that Peter asked to be placed that way because he believed he was not worthy of being crucified head up as Christ had been. She pointed to another panel in the same door featuring St. Paul, who is being martyred by having his head chopped off.

The basilica

Once into the massive basilica, Penelope started us at the back by pointing to Michelangelo’s famous pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding her son when he was taken down from the cross. It was too crowded to get close but I had read that the pieta is now behind protective glass after a visitor damaged it with an axe in 1972. The building is immense and one feels inconsequential within it – which must have been the purpose after all. That is not Penelope’s reaction: “The idea behind building the basilica was to step into the church and believe that you are as close to heaven as it is possible to be,” she said.  The interior measures 187 metres (the length of almost two football fields) by 137 metres at the widest point. Michelangelo’s dome rises to 120 metres above the floor and is 42 metres across at its base. I noticed that metal discs have been inserted into the marble floor to mark the size of other large Catholic churches and basilicas relative to St. Peter’s. The entire length of St. Patrick’s Basilica in New York City, for example, is only one-third that of St. Peter’s. I am perplexed that the Church would deface its greatest shrine in order to indicate the size of other, smaller cathedrals. That is much like Toronto and Shanghai jockeying for bragging rights to the tallest freestanding tower, but inappropriate one would think for a church. When later I mentioned this to a friend of mine, a former priest, he said: “The building of St. Peter’s was all about power, the projection of power and the imperial papacy.”

Penelope criss-crossed the basilica with us in tow showing us a baptismal font here and a sculpture or a painting there. An altar dedicated to Pope John Paul XXIII had a crowd before it and we had to wait to have a closer look. Penelope told us approvingly how the pope had in 1962 convened the Second Vatican Council, throwing open the doors and windows of the church to the winds of reform. “This has resulted in all sorts of talks with other Christian churches and world religions, including the Jews,” she said – her first acknowledgment to the heritage of two of our group’s four members.  “This is all for the best,” she said, “but mind, there is only one truth.” She described how Pope John’s body was on display in a glass casket under the altar and, indeed, upon closer examination we saw the late pontiff, his face covered by a black death mask that looked to be made of wax and which accentuates his aquiline nose. Penelope told us that the body has remained perfectly intact (it has not decomposed) since John’s death in 1963, a sign of sanctity that has hastened his canonization on the way to sainthood.

John Paul’s tomb

John XXIII’s glass coffin is not far from the basilica’s main altar, which is covered by Bernini’s majestic bronze canopy and where only a pope can say mass. The bronze was stripped from the Pantheon, a temple build by the Romans in 125 A.D. Michelangelo copied its dome when he built the one at St. Peter’s. There are seventy oil lamps ranged at the front of the papal altar where two staircases lead down into the crypts containing the tombs of countless popes, including that of John Paul II. Penelope said that people are not allowed entry to the crypts from the altar but that we could get there by going out of the church and taking a separate entrance. “But why suffer the crowds,” she said, “when you can have John Paul all to yourself?” She explained how the Vatican’s website allows one to watch a web camera that is constantly trained on John Paul’s tomb. “It is always crowded during the day and you can’t see very much, but if you go on at night when the crypt is closed you will find that you are quite alone with him, ” Penelope said. I tried the site after returning to Canada and the camera works, keeping a lonely and silent vigil throughout the night.

Next Penelope led us to another altar but asked that we not go beyond its curtained barrier. She explained that during the papacy of John Paul II his staff found him wandering through the basilica early one morning. He told them that the church had become too much of a museum and that he wanted an altar dedicated to the celebration of masses throughout the day. There was one occurring now and it was being said in Latin. Penelope, in her earlier description of Vatican Council, had praised the fact that since the 1960s Catholics in any country have been able to have the mass said in their own language so that they can better understand it. Now she took a different tack. “The mass here is most often said in Latin because it is a universal language,” she said. Again, I was transported back to a time when the good sisters trained altar boys by drilling us in the pronunciation of Latin prayers said during the mass. We did learn to pronounce them correctly but had little or no idea about what we were saying.

Our Father

We had told Penelope that we could only spend an hour with her because we had to get to the airport. Now, near the end of the tour, she began to rummage through her rather large purse and produced five glossy postcard-sized pictures of Pope John Paul II clad in white robes and kissing a large crucifix that he held in his hands. She claimed to have postcards of Pope Benedict, too, but said that she couldn’t find them today. During our tour, I had seen her pull cards from her purse and hand them to anyone she encountered in a wheelchair. Now she handed a card to each of us, telling us to turn it over. “This is the Pater Noster, she said, pointing to the prayer printed on the back. “It’s the Our Father in Latin. I think it is such a wonderful prayer. Now, I want you to repeat after me: ‘Pater Noster, qui es in caelis…’”

One thought on “Ms. Penelope’s Vatican tour

  1. Warm greetings Dennis. I trust you and Marthja are well.
    I follow your writing and appreciate it for the unstated questions you point to. Thanks.
    The church…in a perfect world it is the best institution going. Theologically I have always believed, especially from Paul’s writings, that the church is a primary vehicle for the redemption of the human community, and its best it I think it is. When we sink and are stuck in dogma at the expense of discipleship we depreciate ourselves and the church. Penelope leaves me puzzled and disappointed.


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