I came not expecting to be moved by this place.
I came expecting crowds and gimcracks and jabbering people with fanny packs and cameras. I am surprised. I was wrong. I cannot help but be moved by this place. St. Peter’s Square is, first of all, big. It is breathtaking and majestic. It is grand. I am surrounded by immense, imposing statues who hover over me, standing guard — the saints, the martyrs, the twelve apostles. All around me as I sit in the Square I hear voices, a multitude of languages, some I don’t even recognize. All around me I see nuns, bishops, women in their wedding gowns. I have landed smack dab in the middle of the “catholic” Catholic Church. From the very lively babies babbling in their strollers, to the nuns laughing together about something, to the teenagers posing for pictures with their “selfie sticks,” to the seminarians quietly doing their morning prayer, to the Chinese family saying a rosary together — in Chinese — everywhere I see a Church that has somehow survived every attempt to obliterate it. It is a Church which has survived even the grievous sins and moral failings of its own members.
Jesus Christ made two promises when he founded his Church: first, that when the Church speaks as Church, it will not teach error, and second, that the Church would not disappear from the face of the earth before he returned. Sitting here, I see everywhere the fulfillment of those two promises. How, given its “colorful” history, the strings of “interesting” popes and cardinals, the concerted and skillful attacks of its many enemies — how has this Church survived? Money alone could not have sustained it for two thousand years. Power alone could not have sustained it for two thousand years. Only love — transcendent love — can account for this place, here, today — because only transcendent love could have created and sustained it.
Not our love for God, although that love is visible everywhere here. Every statue of Peter reminds me of his enthusiastic love for his Lord. Every statue of Paul reminds me of the inexhaustible energy with which he proclaimed the kingdom of God. They were martyred on the same day: Paul beheaded because he was a Roman citizen, Peter crucified because he was a Jew, and upside down because he asked for that, declaring himself unworthy to be murdered exactly as Jesus had been. Were they afraid? Of course they were. En route to his own beheading, Paul asked a woman if he could have her scarf, so that he could prevent himself from seeing the blade come at him. Peter convinced himself at one point that he ought not be martyred at all, that he should leave Rome alive and continue to evangelize. Only a vision of Jesus himself as Peter was on his way out of town prevented him from running.
They were both terrified. They were human. What can account for them, and for so many other flawed and frightened human beings, to allow themselves to be flayed, grilled, torn to pieces, pressed to death, crucified, beheaded? What can account for a Church that has survived its own popes sometimes: Borgia Popes, de Medicis, the popes who bought their office and used it for their own personal gain, Pope Julian III, who dug up his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and put him on trial, dressed in his papal regalia and dead as a doornail, this pope who found his dead predecessor guilty of all crimes and then tossed him in the Tiber? What can account for a Church that embraces both Peter and Julian III, while often disapproving heartily of both of them? What can account for me, standing here a few miles from the place where Paul was killed, standing on top of the place where Peter was crucified, looking at the obelisk he almost certainly was looking at as he died? It has to be God’s love — for the Twelve, for the Jews, for the martyrs, for every single one of us—for our corrupt, striving, beautiful, flawed, sorry human selves — only God’s perfect love could have created and sustained this place.
Peter’s bones are buried beneath the ground on which I sit. Beneath me, scratched into the wall of a crypt containing the bones of many martyrs, are the words, “Peter is Here.” Next to those words, in the wall, are a collection of bones, but there are no foot bones. When someone is crucified upside-down, they cut the dead body off the cross, leaving the feet behind. As I sit in the Square, Pope Francis enters and mounts the stage for his Wednesday audience. And here am I, an Irish Catholic Girl from Chicago, three days into a semester in Rome — cold, homesick, tired, confused — and yet, I am filled with joy and peace in this place. Surrounding me and grounding me and soaring over my head is evidence of the faith in which my Irish Catholic father from Chicago, Jack Maloney — my papa — raised me. And here I sit, atop Papa Peter, listening to Papa Francesco. And I am home.
Anne Maloney is department chair and an associate professor of philosophy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.