Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
March 15, 2013
I was really honored when Raymond Arroyo of EWTN asked me to come to Rome to do television commentary for the papal conclave. The week since I’ve arrived has been one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating experiences of my life.
As a Catholic disciple, it’s a privilege to be in Rome when a new pope comes out on the loggia della benedizione.
As a priest apostle, it’s an even greater joy to make the beautiful teachings of the Church and the intricate procedures of electing a pope intelligible to Catholics and non-Catholics back home. It’s an occasion to synthesize my experience covering Catholic news with all I learned about Church history and the popes during my years as a guide here.
It’s also an opportunity not only to meet cardinals and Church leaders, but also to get to know and befriend members of the media — national, international and local, secular and Catholic — helping them, I hope, to understand better what they’re covering and transmit it with greater accuracy to people who depend on them for the truth.
But by far the greatest experience here — one, frankly, that I wasn’t expecting to be so powerful — has been the opportunity to celebrate Mass each morning in St. Peter’s for whoever the new Holy Father will be.
I’m quite familiar with celebrating Mass at St. Peter’s. During my first year as a priest, when I had returned to Rome to complete graduate studies, I celebrated Mass 106 times at various altars in the basilica. Every time I’ve visited since, leading pilgrimages or participating in Vatican conferences, I have celebrated Mass inside the basilica most days.
It’s always a joy and something to which I really look forward. At seven in the morning when it opens, St. Peter’s Basilica is what it always ought to be, a house of prayer, rather than the holy, beautiful museum into which it gets transformed once the thousands of tourists arrive with their cameras and guides after nine. It’s a beautiful time to pray the Mass, to make my thanksgiving and pray my breviary in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and even to walk around the basilica praying the Rosary.
But this time celebrating Mass in the basilica has been different.
The first difference is the sense of Liturgical deprivation when I get to the part of the Mass when we pray in communion with the Church. Beginning March 1 back home, I had already begun to feel like a spiritual orphan when I got to the part of the Mass in which, every day for the previous 2,873 days I had prayed “for Benedict our pope.” But it’s even more magnified here, where the pope is also Bishop of Rome; priests have to omit even prayers for the bishop. There’s a huge hole where two of the most important relationships for a Catholic ought to be accentuated.
At the same, however, because I’ve been celebrating at St. Peter’s, I haven’t felt totally pope-less. St. Peter’s tomb is here. Blessed John Paul II’s tomb is here. In fact, 148 of the 265 popes are buried at St. Peter’s. As I have prayed the Mass Pro Eligendo Pontifice (Mass for Electing the Pope), I have found that my bond with the first pope and all his successors has been growing as I pray with them for whoever will soon become their successor.
It was special for me to celebrate Mass at the altars over the mortal remains of St. Leo the Great (440-461), St. Gregory the Great (590-604) and St. Pius X (1903-1914) as I’ve asked them to do all they can to influence the outcome of the conclave and get us a pope who will share their virtues. I’ve prayed for long periods of time before the altars enclosing the remains of Blessed John Paul II and Blessed John XXIII, that the new Vicar of Christ may have, respectively, their courage and joy.
One morning when the basilica was particularly quiet, I went slowly around the upstairs basilica and downstairs crypt praying at the various altars and sarcophagi where popes are entombed, asking for their intercession for the one who will soon be numbered among them.
I visited and prayed through the intercession of John Paul I and Paul VI; Pius III, VI, VII, VIII, XI and XII; Gregory V, XIII and XIV; Benedict XIV and XV; Innocent VII, VIII, IX and XI; Clement X and XIII; Urban VI and VIII, Paul II and III; Hadrian IV and Marcellus II; Alexander VII and VIII; and Leo XI, Nicholas V, Julius III and Boniface VIII. I also prayed on top of the entrance to the polyandrium underneath the grotto that contains the relics of the vast majority of the other popes who don’t have tombs in the present basilica.
It was a powerful walk through history as I remembered what I had once studied about them and used my “pope app” on my iPhone to recall details I had forgotten. Most of them had been elected in conclaves similar to the one occurring this week and they would all be able to relate to what the cardinals would be feeling as they participated, with the weight of history on their shoulders, but also counting on the help of God.
But it hasn’t just been the popes I have been pondering, but also the teaching of the papacy that has been enshrined in art and architecture within the basilica. I’ll mention two particularly evocative images.
The first is the famous Altar of the Chair at the back of the basilica. Enshrined by Bernini within a bronze sculpture that gave rise to the Baroque era in art is a chair that in the 1600s was believed to have been the very chair on which St. Peter used to sit to teach the Christians of Rome. The chair symbolizes the teaching authority of Peter, where it comes from, what it does, and what the relationship needs to be of all of us with it.
Where it comes from: above the chair hovers the famous alabaster sculpture of the Holy Spirit, indicating that it’s the Holy Spirit Who continues to guide the successor of Peter and the Church united with him to the truth.
What it does: in a bas relief on the front-facing part of the “back” of the chair is depicted Peter feeding Christ’s sheep and lambs, as Jesus commanded Peter to do after the Resurrection as a fruit of Peter’s love for Him. That’s precisely what happens when Peter teaches: he nourishes Christ’s flock.
What the relationship we’re all called to have with the teaching authority of each pope: at the bottom of the chair are four bishop-doctors of the Church, two from the East and two from the West, shown pointing toward the chair in a gesture of upholding it, but without actually touching it. This points to their communion — together with the people entrusted to them — with the papal magisterium and their prayer sustaining it.
The other image is at the front of the basilica.
Immediately over the main entrance, there is a sculpture of the Divine foundation of papacy, Jesus’ handing the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. But in counterpoint on the inside of that same door is the very human reality: a mosaic showing Peter’s sinking in the Sea of Galilee after he took his eyes off of Christ as he was walking on water.
This latter image, the last thing pilgrims would see as they were exiting the basilica, is a forceful reminder to pray for the pope: as long as he keeps his eyes on Christ, he can do great things; but, even though he has the keys of the Kingdom, if he takes his eyes off of Christ and takes account of the winds, he will sink, as some notorious popes have.
That’s a sign for all of us of the need to pray for our new pope, that he may keep his eyes on the Lord and help all of us to do the same.