Holy Year 1975 in St. Peter’s Basilica

July 15th , 2016 Tagged with:


“..and the brick will be returned to you when the Holy Door is opened again for the next Holy Year”, explained the Director of the “Reverenda Fabbrica”, the office which takes care of the   magnificent building  that is St. Peter’s Basilica.


tools used to place bricks in the Holy Door

vat holydoor bricks, hammers

Vatican Museum’s collection of Holy Door bricks

After an entire year working as a volunteer guide in the Basilica, making audio-visual materials and translating brochures for the English Language Pilgrims’ Service, having  a special brick with my name on it  inserted into the Holy Door  was  a special way to commemorate  the thousands of hours dedicated to help pilgrims from around the world.

The  Holy Door is the furthest to the right  as one enters the Basilica. It is opened only  during Holy Years as a symbolic “extra way” to arrive to God . Along with the other four doors, it leads  from the portico or atrium  into the grandiose interior  designed by Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno.

It was February 1976 before the “sampietrini”, workers  in the Basilica whose jobs are passed down  through generations, could actually block up the doorway since bricks had to be specially made for the purpose, impressed with the year, the reigning pope’s coat of arms and the names of people, who like myself, had requested and received  this special honor.

To become  a volunteer guide we had spent months of study, attending  special courses with eminent professors and participated  in seminars organized inside Vatican over the previous year. Volunteers needed free time, stamina and resistance to the cold drafts of the atrium where pigeons flew in and out . We wore  yellow plastic arm bands  inscribed “Jubileum” and welcomed thousands of pilgrims giving them assistance in the Basilica and at the Pilgrims’ Office on via della Conciliazione.

sistine chap 1

Inside the Sistine Chapel

Many  priests, nuns and seminarians were  assigned full time to the Basilica for the special occasion, but   others, like myself, were lay persons who dedicated our free time  as volunteers to accompany pilgrims and  explain  the wonders of  the Basilica.

We welcomed Italian and Irish parish groups led by earnest, ruddy-faced country priests, school groups from every European country, entire families, servicemen on leave, individual tourists, pilots and truck drivers, lawyers and refugees, ballet dancers and businessmen – all of whom became pilgrims if for just a few hours, as they were shown around the Basilica.

Thousands converged on St. Peter’s from every corner of the globe: from Scotland, Samoa, New Guinea, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Kenya and Bangladesh, from Singapore and Holland they came often dressed in their traditional costumes and using English as our common language we were able to introduce them to the Basilica that is the “summa” of Christianity and make them feel at home.

vat sculpture hall

Sculpture Hall, Vatican Museums

For visitors from “new” countries it was  a first contact with many concepts of  art and history as well. They wanted to know what a mosaic was, if the statues and monuments were arranged in chronological order, how to read Roman numerals. “Where is the Sistine Chapel?” was  the most asked question  thanks to the popular book and film “The Agony and the Ecstacy”.

Even now, decades later, the memories remain deeply impressed. The brightly garbed  cardinals and bishops processing  around the Basilica every evening, the “sampietrino” who, while cleaning the top of Bernini’s canopy which towers 29 metres over the main altar, discovered his grandfather’s name  and a date scratched into the metal.

Some Sunday afternoons   it seemed that half the Italian population was trying to  enter the Holy Door at the same time,  and crowd control was up to us.  Sister Cecilia would lead hymns over the loudspeaker to keep the crowds from pushing and  Father Casimiro,  who dedicated his time to the Polish pilgrims long before being Polish was fashionable in Vatican circles, chanted in Latin so more people could understand.

Many late afternoons we would watch with awe as  rays of sun poured  through the high windows on the right, cutting a swath of light in the Basilica’s dark interior. Not only did  Michelangelo know how to use stone and marble, but he also made sunlight his accomplice  to create moments of breath taking beauty for future generations of visitors to St. Peter’s.

For more about Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and life in Rome and on the Via Francigena use the search bar   on my blog 50yearsinItaly.

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