St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — or, more precisely, in Vatican City — is the world’s largest church. However, not only is it immense, it ranks among the greatest and most important monuments of Christian history.
More than 130 popes lie entombed within its walls. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pietà, carved when the sculptor was just 25, sits to the right of the entrance. The stone on which Charlemagne knelt when, on Christmas Day of the year 800 A.D., the pope crowned him head of the Holy Roman Empire is embedded in the floor just within the main portal. Only the pope may celebrate Mass at the high altar, beneath Michelangelo’s enormous and awe-inspiring dome.
The scale of the church is suitably vast. It is 692 feet long and about 450 feet across at its widest point. Its dome rises more than 400 feet from the floor and is 138 feet in diameter. The basilica’s more than 1,800 square yards of floor space contain 500 columns, 450 statues and 50 altars, and can accommodate 60,000 people. Around the base of the dome, in massive letters, run the Latin words of Christ to Peter, as recorded in Matthew 16:18-19: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; ... and I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” According to Roman Catholic belief, this is the charter of the papacy, the office held by the successors of the apostle Peter (who, Catholics assert, served as the first bishop of Rome).
Despite its huge size and its intimate link with the popes, however, St. Peter’s Basilica is not a cathedral. To claim that title, a church must be the “seat” or “throne” (Latin “cathedra”) of a bishop. But the pope’s cathedral, his seat as Rome’s bishop, is actually the smaller, less distinguished Church of St. John Lateran, roughly 4 miles away. (The term “basilica” simply indicates the architectural form of a building.)
The church’s foundation dates to 324 A.D., when the emperor Constantine erected a huge sanctuary over the traditional tomb of Peter. The present structure, built on the same site but even larger, is essentially a product of the 16th century. Michelangelo spent his last years working on the building, fiercely devoted to his dream for it despite the intrigues of the Renaissance papal court. Refusing payment, he labored indefatigably for the honor of St. Peter and the glory of God. Peter’s tomb, Roman Catholics believe, rests below the high altar, which, in turn, stands beneath the apex of the great dome. (Some archaeological evidence suggests, incidentally, that this may be true. See the previous column “Why was Peter in Rome?” at deseret.com.)
The construction of St. Peter’s occurred at the same time that the Reformation split European Christendom and embroiled much of northern Europe in rebellion against papal authority. This is not coincidental. In order to fund construction of his immense church, Pope Leo X issued what came to be called “indulgences.” Through indulgences, the church granted forgiveness and remitted penalties for sins. The underlying notion was that there exists a treasury of merits, accumulated not only from the perfect life of Christ but from the Blessed Virgin Mary and the virtues of the saints. (The good deeds and excellent qualities of Mary and the saints exceeded those needed for their own personal salvation, and so, like money that hasn’t been drawn from a bank account when the account holder dies, remained unused.) The church, and specifically the pope as the treasury’s custodian, could distribute these excess merits, transferring them to others in exchange for repentance, prayers or pious works, or, as Leo X preferred, for monetary donations.
In the later Middle Ages, indulgences came to be sold by professional “pardoners” such as the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. His German critics claimed that he used a marketing jingle that went roughly as follows, in English translation: “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel’s aggressive selling of forgiveness for the living and the dead provoked Martin Luther, on Oct. 13, 1517, to post his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which criticized the church’s policy, on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. And that, in turn, led directly to the Protestant Reformation. Pope Pius V finally banned the pardoners’ activities in 1567, but the damage had already been done. Ironically, fundraising abuses arising from the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica undermined the foundations of Catholic Europe.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.