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Rome Notes: A Feast Fit for Apostles; an Oratory for a Martyr

A Decked-Out Basilica, and the Storied Pallium

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 2, 2004 (Zenit) - Tuesday marked the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, a holiday in Rome when stores and businesses close.

It is also the titular feast of St. Peter's Basilica. The basilica gets fully decked out for the celebration and provides pilgrims with a treat for ears and eyes. In fact, the excitement becomes palpable as of the day before.

According to tradition, the morning of June 29 of the year A.D. 64, Peter and Paul were taken from their common cell at Rome's Mammertine prison and separated. Artists through the ages have dwelt on their goodbye, often depicting the last embrace between the two friends.

The Golden Legend records their parting words:

Paul to Peter: "Peace be with you, foundation stone of the churches and shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!"

And Peter to Paul: "Go in peace, preacher of virtuous living, mediator and leader of the salvation of the righteous!"

Peter was taken to Nero's Circus where he was crucified upside down, while Paul was taken east to the area now known as Tre Fontane. The name records the legend of the saint's beheading, when his severed head reportedly bounced three times, creating three fountains.

The connection between the two saints is also evident in their respective basilicas. Emperor Constantine built the first six Christian churches in Rome from 313 to 328, and among them were St. Peter's Basilica and St. Paul's "outside the walls."

Five of the churches face east, as was common in orienting churches at the time. St. Paul's faces west, so that across the city, both basilicas watch over the sheep and lambs of their city.

Anticipation for the celebration is kindled on the eve of the feast as the church reveals her splendid decoration. The 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter is adorned with a high jeweled tiara, and a red and gold brocade mantle fastened with a topaz pin of the Holy Spirit.

The only parts of the statue protruding from the robe are the saint's face, his keys and the famous foot, worn smooth from years of touching and kissing by the faithful. On this day, however, there is no rubbing of Peter's foot as he is flanked by two discreetly dressed men carrying boxes for the offering of "Peter's Pence," a charitable fund used at the discretion of the Pope.

Below the statue a huge spray of deep red roses emit their sweet fragrance that mixes with the lingering scent of incense throughout the church. Still more roses surround Peter's tomb and the papal altar is hung with a velvet and gold cloth of the same hue as the flowers. The rich scarlet serves as reminder that the blood spilled by the martyr 19 and a half centuries ago has helped lead to the Church we see today.

Even the light of the basilica cooperates in the décor. In the late afternoon, three distinct beams of light descend around Peter's tomb, as if the Trinity were standing guard around the resting place of the Prince of the Apostles.

On the feast itself, the basilica sparkles with activity. Beyond the usual number of tourists and pilgrims, the church was filled with ecclesiastic glitterati. Forty-four archbishops scheduled to receive the pallium that day had arrived in Rome and red and purple caps flickered sporadically among the crowds.

The Mass began in the cooler hours of the early evening in St. Peter's Square. After the homily the archbishops came forward to receive the pallium from the Holy Father.

The pallium is a circle of wool that hangs around the neck and shoulders with two long pieces draping one over the chest and the other along the back. It is decorated with six black crosses and weighed with pieces of lead.

Originally an identifying item that only a pope could wear, as early as the fourth century, writings tell of popes conferring the pallium on bishops.

The wool for the pallium comes from two lambs offered every year to the Pope. They are first taken to the Church of St. Agnes to be blessed. The lambs arrive wearing floral crowns, one white and one red. These represent the purity of Agnes, which the archbishops should emulate, and the martyrdom of Agnes, which the archbishops should be prepared to follow.

The lambs are then shorn and the palliums are made. On the eve of the ceremony the palliums are stored overnight in the silver casket above Peter's grave.

Then the palliums are given to the newly appointed metropolitan bishops, the only occasion in which more than one bishop can be seen wearing the pallium at the same time. Symbolically, the Pope is sharing his mission to "Feed my sheep and lambs" with the archbishops. The wool over the shoulders evokes the lamb over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd.

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