Travels & Traditions: Vatican City - #703

BURT WOLF: On October 16th 1978, Karol Wojtyla entered a small room in St Peter’s Basilica, put on a white robe, a short red cape and a white scull cap. A few minutes later he stood at a balcony facing St. Peter’s Square. He had become John Paul II, the 264th

Pope, the spiritual leader of one out of every five people on the planet. As “the Holy Father”, he headed an institution that had outlasted the Roman Empire, encompassed more territory than the lands of Alexander the Great and had a more significant impact on history than the dynasties of Spain, France and England combined. He could influence the behavior of government officials in their anti-rooms, corporations in their boardrooms and private citizens in their bedrooms.

I wanted to know why the Papacy became so important. What it’s been doing for the past 2000 years and what was it going to be doing in the future.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The first thing I learned is that the history of the Papacy is not just the history of the Catholic Church. The story of the Papacy is actually an essential part of the history of the entire world.

BURT WOLF: Christ was a traveling rabbi who preached in Palestine. His life on earth, death and resurrection were seen as having been prophesized in the sacred books of Judaism. His followers were centralized in Jerusalem but within a decade of his death, Christianity began spreading throughout the Middle East. The primary messenger was St. Paul.

Paul was a well-educated Roman citizen who believed that Christ’s message was not only for the Jews. Paul taught that Christianity offered everyone the opportunity to be reconciled with God. Paul was the messenger of the early Church but not the leader.

That was the responsibility of Peter, a fisherman from Galilee who became the spokesman for the Apostles. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: To understand the Papacy, I think we have to begin by understanding the Apostles. These are Disciples of Jesus that he chose, and then he commissioned to go out into the world and teach. So essentially, the Papacy is a teaching office. But then Peter has something else.

Peter from the beginning is seen as someone who has received revelation from the Father, and a special commission and authority from the Son. And so he's seen at the beginning as the head of the Church in Jerusalem. He goes to Rome and is seen as the head of the Church in Rome. And this special status is respected from the very beginning. 

BURT WOLF: At the time, Rome was the center of the Empire and had a thriving Jewish population of about 50,000. They were in close touch with the Jews of Palestine and were well aware of the events surrounding Christ.

MONSIGNOR WILLIAM A. KERR ON CAMERA: The Jewish Diaspora had Jewish peoples living all over the Roman Empire, but many had migrated and settled in Rome. There was a strong Jewish community, a section of Rome almost, that was Jewish, and these persons were integrated into the Empire, they were powerful, they were significant. But they were also held in suspicion by the Romans. They became interested early on in what was going on in Jerusalem, they became interested in the Christ, they began to convert to Christianity, and when Peter and Paul came to them, they were welcomed by these people.

They were curious, they wanted to hear what Peter and Paul had to say, but they also wanted to be instructed by them. 

BURT WOLF: Christianity was spreading quickly and the Emperor Nero took notice of both Peter and Paul. He was offended by their teachings and in the middle of the first century had them put to death. But that did little to stop the growth of Christianity. The followers of Christ continued to practice their faith.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They met in private homes and market places. There was no single individual in charge and many conflicting opinions as to what was the “true” faith. It became increasingly apparent that a more structured approach was necessary. The answer became the Papacy a single bishop carrying on the tradition of St Peter.


BURT WOLF: Today Rome’s Vatican City is the epicenter of the Papacy. With a population of only 550 and a landmass of just over 100 acres, it’s the world’s smallest independent state. It has its own newspaper with an international circulation. Its own book publisher. Its own television network. Its own police force. Its own stamps and a postal service to go along with them.

It also has its own radio station that went on the air in 1931.

ANNOUNCER: The Pope for the first time in the nineteen hundred years Catholicism has sent his voice throughout the world. With this broadcast his Holiness celebrates the ninth anniversary of his coronation as Pope Pius the XI…

BURT WOLF: It was one of the first international stations and was actually built by Marconi who was the inventor of wireless communication.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The world Vatican comes from a Latin word meaning prophecy and during Roman times Vatican Hill was a place where fortune-tellers would offer their advice, for a fee, to the general public.

BURT WOLF: During the first century a racetrack was built nearby and used by the emperor Nero to stage elaborate spectacles. His favorite was killing Christians.

Nero’s circus is gone, replaced by St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. It was built in 1656 and is almost the same size as the ancient Roman Forum. It’s partially enclosed by two semicircular colonnades. Above the colonnades are statues of saints and martyrs.

The double-colonnades symbolize the outstretched arms of the Church, welcoming and protecting the faithful. It is considered to be one of the worlds finest examples of civic architecture and can hold over 250,000 people.The square is the approach to St. Peter’s Basilica.


BURT WOLF: Historians believe that the basilica was built right next to the spot where St. Peter was martyred. As a condemned criminal he was not permitted a normal burial so his remains were secretly recovered and placed in the public necropolis on Vatican Hill.

In 1940, workmen digging below the basilica found a burial chamber that dated to the first century. A small space below the chamber appeared to be the tomb of St. Peter. That belief is supported by an adjacent wall that is covered with the names of pilgrims asking for St. Peter’s help.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: And then they found something very unusual, or, you might say they didn't find something they expected and that was there were no feet on the skeleton. And you remember, Saint Peter was crucified upside down, so they surmise the easiest way for the Romans to take him down was simply to cut him off at the feet and let the body drop. Peter had chosen a successor, Linus, as the next Bishop of Rome, and it was Linus who took the body, and with colleagues, buried it.

BURT WOLF: At the beginning of the 4th century, Constantine, was the emperor of Rome and believed that a dream with a vision of the cross gave him an important military victory. He converted and made Christianity the official religion of the empire.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Constantine’s conversion may or may not have been heartfelt, but it was definitely part of his big plan, he did everything he could to advance the Christians standing within the Romans and at the same time everything he could to advance his own standing with the Christians.

BURT WOLF: In 323, he ordered the construction of a huge basilica designed to sit directly above the cemetery where the remains of St. Peter were buried.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: It was a difficult project because number one he wanted to put the altar of the church right over the tomb of St. Peter which meant he had to cover a pagan cemetery which was sacred ground and aristocracy was buried there so very controversial. Secondly it’s on a hillside. He’s got to move tons of earth and third he’s got a stream moving through it. So he’s got to work around the stream. In any event he builds the Basilica but he goes through all of that effort, all of that controversy, because he wants the Basilica over the tomb of St. Peter. Why, because St. Peter is so revered by the early church.

BURT WOLF: Additional churches and monasteries were constructed alongside the basilica, as well as buildings to house and feed the thousands of pilgrims who came to pay tribute to St. Peter. The basilica itself stood up to continual use for 1200 years. 

But during the 1400s it began to disintegrate and a plan was developed for a new structure. Michelangelo built a 16-foot high model of the dome so he could make a series of stress tests. His dome was 137 feet wide and 440 feet above the floor of the basilica. He was an artist, an architect and an engineer.

Work got under way in 1450 but like most construction projects it ran over budget. To help raise the needed funds the Church offered to pray for your well being in the afterlife in exchange for a meaningful donation during your present life. Some people considered this scandalous and it became a major irritant for Martin Luther. Construction on St. Peter’s also ran a little late. The opening dedication took place in 1626---226 years after workers began digging the foundation.

Today St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian church in the world.


BURT WOLF: In 1508, Pope Julius II entered his private chapel. Walking next to him was Michelangelo, considered to be one of the greatest artists of the time. The Pope pointed to the ceiling, looked at Michelangelo and said, “Paint it.” Michelangelo spent the next four years of his life standing on a scaffold and painting a fresco. He even made sketches of himself at work.

A fresco is produced by putting fresh plaster on a surface and then painting a picture on the plaster. The artist uses paints that are made from colored powder mixed with water. When the water dries out the powder sets into the plaster. The color becomes a permanent part of the wall or in this case the ceiling. It’s the perfect medium for large murals, but it’s a difficult technique. The painter must work fast, completing a section before the plaster is dry and mistakes cannot be corrected by overpainting. Make a mistake and you must start again with fresh plaster.

The fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is considered to be one of the greatest works of art. It presents events from the Old Testament.

The Popes were good clients for Michelangelo, and Pope Paul III brought him back to paint the west wall of the chapel. He was eighty years old.

Today the Sistine Chapel is the room used by the Sacred College of Cardinals when they meet to elect a new Pope.


BURT WOLF: On the night of August 10th 1992, a section of the mosaic covering the dome of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament broke off and fell 400 feet to the floor below. Rainwater had seeped into the ceiling and weakened the glue that held the mosaic chips to the dome. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but a restoration program was needed and it had to begin immediately.

A mosaic is made by taking pieces of colored glass, marble or stone and pasting them onto a surface that has been prepared with glue. The ancient Romans learned the technique from the Greeks and used it to decorate their homes and temples.

By the third century mosaics were being used to present sacred images.

At the time, people were loosing interest in sculpture and the mosaic gradually took over as the most convincing way to picture a religious event.

When the great paintings inside St. Peter’s Basilica began to deteriorate in the 1600s they were recreated in mosaic. But if you didn’t know that and you didn’t look for the tiny stones, you’d think they were paintings.

The restoration program for the dome was undertaken by the Mosaic Studio of the Vatican. Its work dates back to the 1500s and it is considered to be the finest mosaic studio in the world. It also has the largest collection of the stones that are used to produce the works.

The artists have about 30,000 different colors to choose from and there are samples for each color. On the back of each chip is the identification number.

In the next room there are hundreds of bins filled with the tiles that are necessary to make the mosaic. Each number on the samples matches up with the numbers on the bins. Almost all of the tiles where made here in the Vatican mosaic studio. And many are hundreds of years old. 

Some of the tiny chips are stone, some are marble and some are glass. The glass chips are produced in the studio.

Small pieces of glass mixed with chemicals that give it color are fussed together at a temperature of 800 degrees centigrade.

The hot glass is pulled at both ends to produce a filament. A bladed hammer and a wedge of steel are used to cut the filament into the size and shape that the artist wants for a specific spot in the mosaic.

The mosaic on the dome was put in place in 1656 and presents the “The mystery of the Eucharist”.

The only way to work on it was to build a scaffold up to the vault.

Each section of the mosaic that needed repair was copied and coordinated on numbered sheets that were fixed to the vault. When the chips were reattached the bonding glue was made from an ancient recipe that combined marble dust, lime, and flax oil.

The restoration took almost two years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The funding came from The Knights of Columbus in the United States who were attracted to the project because of its cultural and artistic importance and because they felt it stood as a metaphor for life.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They pointed out that a mosaic is made by placing one stone next to another stone until we have a masterwork and that life is similar. We place one minute next to the next minute until we are the masterwork of the Divine Artist. 


BURT WOLF: On the 22nd of April, in the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII stood on the balcony of the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano and announced the first Jubilee Year. He had gotten the idea from the biblical book of Leviticus which described a jubilee year that took place every fifty years and required that all slaves be freed and all debts paid.

Pope Boniface declared that anyone who came to Rome during the Jubilee Year, confessed their sins and visited St. Peter’s would be pardoned from the temporal punishment that was due as a result of those sins.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It was like saying to your kid, “You’re forgiven, but you still have to pay the consequences”. Not a free flight but definitely the ultimate bonus miles program. And everybody who could take advantage of the offer came to Rome. During that single year, over a million people visited this city.

BURT WOLF: The Church intended to mark every hundredth year as a Holy Year. But in 1334, the interval was shortened to 33 years, the length of the life of Christ. In 1464 Pope Paul II cut it down to 25 years. The quarter-century spacing has been in use ever since.

A Holy Year begins on the preceding Christmas Eve when the Pope opens the Holy Door, the Porta Santa of St. Peter’s. Traditionally the Pope would used aver hammer to knock down a temporary wall that was erected in front of the door, after that, the door was opened. But there are also special occasions that call for a Holy Year. 1983 was a Holy Year that marked 1,950 years since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1500, the name was changed from Jubilee Year to Holy Year but the offer of forgiveness remained.

BURT WOLF: The visits enhance the image of the Papacy. People discovered the extraordinary buildings that had been commissioned by the Popes. They saw the art that came into being at the command of the Popes. They witnessed the pageantry that honored the saints. And they heard music that was specifically composed to lift the hearts of the faithful. They went back to their homes throughout Europe with a new awareness of the importance of the Papacy. More than any organization in the history of the world the Papacy has promoted tourism and tourism has promoted tolerance and understanding.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In many ways the history of the Papacy is similar to the history of any large institution---you have your good days and your not so good days. Of course in the case of the Papacy you’re looking at centuries not days. Nevertheless, you can look back over its 2000-year history and see that it is clearly the source of some of our greatest achievements.

For Travels & Traditions, I'm Burt Wolf.