The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and oldest Christian denomination in the world, with some 221,700 parishes, 467,000 clergy and 1.3 billion members.
The seat of the Catholic Church is in Rome and is headed by the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. The pope is the successor of the apostles of Jesus Christ at the head of the Church. Saint Peter, who was one of the apostles, was the first pope and he consecrated Linus who succeeded him in 67 AD, beginning the tradition and unbroken line of the papacy that continues to this day.
Saint Peter was crucified and martyred on Vatican Hill by Emperor Nero around 64 AD. Persecution of Christians continued in Rome until 313 when Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, issued the Edict of Milan to end the persecution of Christians. And in 333, Constantine ordered the construction of a Christian church in Rome on the tomb of Saint Peter: Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The term Basilica comes from the Greek word bhow i like them, meaning “royal” or “royal”. In the Roman Catholic Church it is used in the titles of some churches with special privileges granted by the pope. There are Major and minor Basilica. There are only four major basilicas, all in Rome and including St. Peter’s.
The church from this era is often referred to as St. Peter’s Basilica and was the first church to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Peter. Completed in 360 AD, the original church was for 1,200 years the site of papal coronations and historical events, including the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. In 1505, Pope Julius II ordered the construction of a new basilica, demolished the old St. Peter’s Basilica and inaugurated what became St. Peter’s Basilica which stands today.
Across from the basilica is St. Peter’s Square, a 251,000 square foot plaza that hosts gatherings of up to 300,000 people. The square is surrounded by an arcade of 372 columns and pilasters surmounted by statues of 140 saints. In the center is the Vatican Obelisk which originally stood in Heliopolis, Egypt, made of red granite and weighing over 741,000 pounds.
From the obelisk, one can see the sculptures that stand at the top of the facade of the Basilica: Christ the Redeemer, Saint John the Baptist and 11 apostles. Among the carvings are two prominent clocks held by angels, each bearing a coat of arms.
From the street to the top of the dome, St. Peter’s Basilica is 448 feet high, 730 feet long, and 500 feet wide, seating up to 20,000 people. One of the largest churches in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica contains over 100 tombs, dozens of ornate statues such as the bronze statue of St. Peter and, directly below the dome and above the tomb of St. Peter, is the altar of St. Peter.
St. Peter’s Basilica was designated a place of Christian pilgrimage by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 and welcomes 40,000 to 50,000 visitors daily and some 14 million each year. One of the most important churches in all of Christendom, and among the most important churches in the world, Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “an adornment of the earth”.