The Holy See has ‘mass’ appeal

By Jane Wooldridge

McClatchy Newspapers

VATICAN CITY — These 108 acres are home to a soaring marbled basilica, the bones of the apostle Peter, Greek statues and Egyptian mummies and what undeniably is the world’s greatest mural. For the world’s billion Catholics, The Holy See is also home to the leader of their faith.

Most Sundays and Wednesdays, worshippers flock here by the thousands, drawn by belief and tradition and spiritual significance that, for many, transcends easy words.

Joining involves a mundane process of lines and security checks amid Bernini’s fabled 284 columns, and sometimes uncharitable jostling for views. But when the pope appears in his signature white robes, the crowd cheers wildly, and all hassles are forgotten.


"It’s hard to explain," said Noah Stefanelli, 9, of Truckee, Calif., who attended recently. He got teary-eyed when he saw the pope, he said. As for his mother, Laurie, "I was bawling like a baby … this is the person we believe is closest to God. I’m trying to teach my children, to explain to them who this is."

Whether visiting is a religious pilgrimage, a stop at a scene from a Dan Brown novel or a checkmark on your must-see list, Vatican City delivers history, religion, power, faith and soul-stunning beauty that can quell even the voices of rowdy teens.

There were plenty of those — mostly school groups — at the Vatican Museums on a recent Tuesday. The kids dashed through as quickly as their teachers allowed on their way to the Vatican’s superstar attraction, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

At their age, who can blame them? But they’re missing so much of the grandeur that ranks the Vatican Museums with the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage — sculptures, tapestries, historical paintings and modern works housed in palaces so elaborate they would be worth the visit even without the art inside.

The Vatican Museums are all the more accessible since the museum’s new entry area opened in 2000. No longer will you huddle in rain and blazing sun as you wait in line. The airy vestibule offers a friendly information booth, coat check, multiple ticket booths and the inevitable gift shop. Thanks to the museum cafe serving pizza and panini, espresso and yes, even beer at bargain prices, you can easily spend a day here.

The holdings are, simply, "staggering," as Kate Gilhuly of New York exclaimed on this, her first visit. What the 4 million annual visitors find isn’t only Christian art but a rich trove of masterworks from the Classical world before Christ’s birth. From the sculptures first collected by Pope Julius II in the 1500s, the Vatican’s holdings have expanded to include intricately painted Egyptian sarcophogi from the first century B.C., marbled busts from Rome’s Imperial times, sculptures of rams and crabs and lions, statues of the muses, ancient mosaics, bronze statuary, jewelry and helmets and vases, vast muraled maps of 16th century Italian and papal holdings, and the startling revolving "Sphere with Sphere," crafted in 1990 by Arnaldo Pomodoro and set as the centerpiece of the museum’s outdoor courtyard.

The centuries-old palaces containing them are marvels in themselves, and if you do nothing but stare at its the ceilings you will have witnessed marvels: intricate carvings painted in gold, plaster figures leaping from paintings, trompe l’oeil scenes painted with lifelike perspective, Wedgewood-like reliefs.

Then there are the Raphael rooms, where every surface save the floors hums with color and emotion, resounding with the stories of history and the messages of goodness, truth, beauty and the Catholic Church’s role. Solomon dispenses his wisdom, St. Peter is delivered from prison, Constantine donates Rome to the pope, Charlemagne is crowned. Painted by the vaunted Renaissance artist and his assistants in the early 1500s, figures in ceiling murals seem literally to climb out of windows and fall out of painted floors, creating a world unto itself that can leaving you unwilling to leave.


But this is more than a museum, it is a place of consecration and decision where the pope and cardinals celebrate the most important services. When one pope dies, the next is elected here by the College of Cardinals, with four votes each day until a single candidate garners a majority of two-thirds-plus-one. The results — black smoke for inconclusive votes, white for a selection — billow from the chimney.

Said Janelle Harrison of Orange County, Calif., "It’s very overwhelming … breathtaking. I’m not a hugely religious person but it was moving to me. I can’t explain why."

Vatican City

• Formal name: Holy See (State of the Vatican City).

• Size: 108.726 acres, wholly within Rome. About 30 percent smaller than the Washington Mall.

• Population: 821 (July 2007 estimate).

• History: Established 1929 by treaty with Italy, though various Papal States have existed here since the eighth century.

• Chief of State: Pope Benedict XVI, elected for life by the College of Cardinals.


• Economy: Supported through contributions from Catholics worldwide, admission fees and souvenir sales.

(Source: CIA World Factbook)

If you go:

Plan your visit: Allow a full day for seeing St. Peter’s Basilica, the papal tombs and Vatican Museums. Hours may vary by time of year.

When to go: The dead of summer will be packed (and hot!); avoid it if possible. Try to go early in the morning. During the Wednesday papal audience, St. Peter’s may be open — and lines are short.

Tours: Touts on the sidewalk hawk them nonstop, and this may be a quick way in if you’re short on time. But be sure of what you’re getting: Is this a short-cut into St. Peter’s Basilica? Will you see the tombs? Are the Vatican Museums included?

If you’re set on a tour of St. Peter’s, try one of the free English language tours that meets most days at the Vatican information office (to the left of the basilica as you face it) at 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday and 2:15 p.m. Monday to Friday (hours may change). An audio-guide (5 euros, about $8) is also available; rent it at the desk downstairs to the right of the basilica entrance.

Papal audiences: Audiences are conducted most Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. and last one to two hours. Much of the service is in Italian but some portions are in English. You can order free tickets in advance from the Web site of the Church of Santa Susanna; see below.


Free tickets are also issued on Tuesdays at the office to the right of basilica that is manned by the Swiss Guard. To get to the office, you must first survive the security queue. In winter the audiences are held inside; from March to October they’re generally outdoors in St. Peter’s Square. If you don’t have a ticket, you can stand in the vast plaza and watch on massive video screens.

Tickets are not required for Sunday papal addresses in St. Peter’s Square.

Tickets to Easter and Christmas masses are extremely difficult to get, advises the Santa Susanna Web site, which offers advise on how to apply for them.

Vatican Museums: Don’t shortchange yourself; unless you’re traveling with children, you’ll want hours here. Be sure to pick up the audio tour after you buy your ticket; it’s well worth the 5 euros (about $8); you’ll need to leave your ID as security. Guided tours are offered in English daily, usually at 10 a.m., for 23.50 euros (about $37). Museum entry costs 14 euros for adults (about $21); 8 euros for children and youth (about $12); under 6 free. The museum offers full access for the disabled; some wheelchairs are available. Information and tours: (011-39-06) 6988-4676 or (011-39-06) 6988-1034.

St. Peter’s Basilica: Entry to the basilica and the papal tombs beneath it is free; a fee of 1.50 euros (about $2.35) is charged for visiting the dome. To enter the basilica, you need to be dressed modestly; no shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts allowed.


• The Vatican’s official Web site offers terrific info on the Vatican Museums but is a bit thin otherwise; you’ll do better with a good guidebook and a stop at the Vatican information office to the left as you face St. Peter’s Basilica. For information about papal audiences, click under "Holy Father."

• Though not affiliated with the Vatican, this Web site is easier to navigate and often more useful than the Vatican’s official site.


• The American Catholic Church in Rome will set aside tickets for the Wednesday papal audiences if you contact it in advance via fax or e-mail. The Web site is also a useful resource for visiting Rome and staying in inexpensive convents.

• Offers limited information about visiting the Vatican.

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