Majestic Portico of St. Peter's
( Originally Published 1907 )
From this position directly in front of the south end of the facade, our eyes can take in with a single glance, but not grasp, its immensity. As we approach the steps they have become enormous; the doors yawn like caverns; the height of the frieze seems to lengthen. As a matter of fact this facade is three hundred and sixty-five feet high, and its eight pillars are sixty-six feet; but so simple and just are the proportions that you cannot persuade your-self of the truth of these figures. A steeple in our own country is rarely as high as this front of St. Peter's, but the narrowness of the steeple gives an exaggerated impression of its height. Here a like impression is absent. You only feel that the great building is getting beyond your impressions, everything is so vast in de-tail. The nineteen statues on the roof, of Christ, His Blessed Mother, His Apostles and the other saints, have become gigantic, and you know now that if you stood beside them all you could see would be their pedestals. They were built in proportion to the height of the facade. The inscription on the frieze be-low the statues states that the facade was erected by Pope Paul V in honor of the Prince of the Apostles. Notice the doors. The central ones are open, the others are closed. Those at the extreme ends open upon a drive which encircles the basilica. Over that main door we see a balcony, from which in the olden time the Pope on festal days gave his famous benediction, Urbi et Orbi, (to the city and the world).
Wonderful scenes have been witnessed in the grand Piazza here, particularly when a newly elected Pontiff came out for the first time to bless the people. Then the vast space behind us was crowded with thousands, soldiers stood in serried ranks along the colonnades, and when the Pope appeared in the balcony, heralded by a functionary who gave his name and his new title, the troops presented arms, the blessing was given, bells rang and guns roared, and thousands cheered with the fiery enthusiasm of believers. From that balcony August 4, 1903, Cardinal Macchi announced to a crowd of fifty thousand people waiting here in the square, the election of a successor to Leo XIII. The words he used were : Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Pontifecem eminentissimum Cardinaleni Josephum Sarto qui sibi nomen imposuit Pium Decimum ("I announce to you a great happiness ; we have for our Supreme Pontiff Cardinal Guiseppe Sarto, who takes the name Pius Tenth"). The other ceremony, the blessing of the city and the world, by the new Pope, ac-cording to present customs takes place on the same balcony but inside, facing the church interior. There perhaps thirty thousand people, admitted by ticket, give way to the same enthusiasm as in the days when the Pontiff was the actual ruler of Rome.
Beyond that central door and inside the church, the nave is more than six hundred feet long. The chapels on either side, as large as our home churches, number forty-five ; the pillars and columns number one hundred and forty-eight; the immense and beautiful statues number four hundred; the vast edifice as a whole occupies almost four acres ; ten thous-and people in this church would be no more noticed than ont hundred in a church whose capacity is a thousand.
The chief glory of the glorious immensity is the High Altar. Our next position will be at the third pillar on the north side of the nave, where we shall have before us the space under the dome and something of the space beyond, the statue of St. Peter, and the central altar. Consult the map, find the figure 3 in the nave and notice how the two red lines reach off toward the west end of the church including much of the central space below the dome.