(St. Peter’s, Vatican City. –Google Earth)
Has anyone wondered why St. Peter’s is built the way it is? Churches, in general, tend to portray a theology in stone (Philip Sheldrake has written books on the subject). St. Peter’s has a theology of Church, as well. Imagine a visitor walking into the basilica. The basilica itself is massive and extremely impressive. It is the place where the liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated. What one notices immediately is the presence of people from times past, either in marble sculpture or tombs of saints and popes. One steps into a time warp of a community of past and present. The visitor is dwarfed by space and sun’s rays streaking from the ceiling. The basilica is a meditation in stone, created by human hands, lifting the mind and heart in awe.
The visitor now leaves the basilica and down the Via Conciliazione the eye looks beyond the fortress Castel San Angelo to the horizon of the city, with the Tiber flowing on the right. But immediately before the basilica is another form of architectural space created by the Bernini columns. These columns, or arms of stone, stretch outward and then inward, like the embrace in love or Mother Church. The psalms speak of a mother hen gathering its chicks; other commentaries evoke the image of a ship coming into safe harbor. The poet Robert Browning described it:
“…With arms wide open to embrace
The entry of the human race. . . . ” (in “Christmas Eve”)
This space in between the columns is a reality not reflected upon that much. Yet, in this space is the Church gathered, the People of God, whose heart beat is found in the Eucharistic liturgy. “Eucharist and people gathered” is the theology in stone that reminds us who we are and what we are about.
In an earlier post I reflected on the presence of the Holy Spirit at the time of the election by cardinals. In the space of the people gathered, the Spirit is present in minds and hearts. Each individual is given a gift or talent to use for the build up of community and transformation of the world. These gifts and charisms are unique and necessary. Discipleship is not just for those who hold an office and are ordained; all are called to ministry in one way or another. All are called to effect change in the world. This is what baptism is all about: a commitment to justice and holiness.
Imagine a St. Peter’s without the piazza. It would look quite ridiculous. An absurd theology of administrative offices! It would portray and religion and a church closed in on itself from the world. It is closed because it has nothing to say.
As the cardinals move into conclave to choose the next spiritual leader of the Church, we are reminded of another, but open-ended conclave, of the symbolic space between the Bellini arms of the piazza in which we all stand and the Spirit moves in freedom. It is not a mistake that two huge water fountains are in the piazza — baptism? Call to holiness? Life in abundance?
There is something bigger here. And it is written in stone.