A CEMETERY OF POPES

WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH

In the beginning of the 4th century the emperor Constantine ordered to build a basilica on the Vatican Hills because here there was a grave of St. Peter. So, the basilica of Constantine was a building which scientists defined as ‘coemeteria subteglata’, that is, a roofed cemetery and the only reason of being for the new building was a grave of the Apostle in its centre. It should be reminded that the Basilica of St. John on Lateran had been the cathedral of the bishop of Rome since the very beginning and popes had resided in it till the 14th century. But the Basilica of St. Peter has always been a place of burials of popes – their list is on a marble tablet placed on the wall of a corridor leading to presbytery and treasury of the church. The monumental tombs are in the basilica, but recently popes have been buried in the Vatican Grottos that is, in a very spacious crypt of the basilica – it was created when the new basilica was erected three meters higher than the old building of Constantine. The Vatican Grottos have three-nave plan and a wide bypass around the grave of St. Peter by which chapels of various nations were built, including the Polish chapel.

The tombs of most recent popes are by the left nave of the grottos. Here one can see a simple tombstone of pope Paul VI canonized on 14 October. Here for 38 years (June 1963 – January 2001) there was a simple sarcophagus of John XXIII, made of travertine, with the inscription: IOANNES PP. XXIII. After beatification the body debris of the pope were placed in a transparent sarcophagus on one of the altars of the basilica.

On the other side of the left nave, there is a sarcophagus of John Paul I, made of grey marble and decorated with beautiful renaissance sculptures of angels created by a prominent sculptor Andrea Bregno. Once they were a part of the monumental tabernacle in which there was one of the most valuable relics of the basilica – fragment of a spear of St. Longinus. Because John Paul I died suddenly, craftsmen of the Basilica of St. Peter had to do a sarcophagus very quickly about which nobody had been thinking then, especially considering the fact that pope Luciani had nearly begun his pontificate. Vatican workers were using help from a stonemason’s company Di Pasqua which cooperates with the administration of the basilica.

When John Paul II died, the niche in which there used to be a sarcophagus of John XXIII, had already been empty. Therefore, the ‘earthwork’ grave for a coffin of the Polish pope was prepared just here – Vatican workers had been working for 3 days and 3 nights to prepare a big chamber into which the body of pope John Paul II, who died on 2 April 2005, was laid. The grave was covered by a marble table with the simple inscription: IOANNES PAULUS IIPP, with the date of his pontificate below: 16 X 1978 – 2 IV 2005. After beatification of the Pope, his coffin was moved to the chapel of St. Sebastian, on the right nave of the basilica where there are also monuments to worship his predecessors: Pius XI and Pius XII. The niche was cleansed and prepared to have the body debris of the next pope in.

In the Vatican grottos, in the niche between the main and left naves, three years ago a new empty sarcophagus from white marble (this kind of marble is called ‘bianco alpi’) was placed, and which is decorated with little columns from albastr. It seems obvious that this time a lot of effort was put into preparing a burial for popes being still alive, and the senior pope still holding his post, in order to avoid ‘improvisation’ after their death.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 43/2018 (28 X 2018)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl