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 home 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 to the apostles of Jesus Christ in leadership 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 the unbroken line of the papacy which continues to today.
Saint Peter was crucified and martyred on Vatican Hill by Emperor Nero circa 64 AD. Persecution of the 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 by 333 Constantine commissioned the building of a Christian church in Rome over the grave of Saint Peter: Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The term basilica comes from the Greek word basilike, meaning “kingly” or “royal”. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is used in the titles of certain churches with special privileges granted by the pope. There are major and minor basilica. There are only four major basilica, all within Rome and including Saint Peter’s.
The church from that time is often referred to as Old Peter’s Basilica and was the first church to memorialize Saint Peter’s martyrdom. Completed in 360 AD, the original church stood for 1,200 years as the site of papal coronations and historic events including the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1505 Pope Julius II ordered a new basilica built, demolished the Old Peter’s Basilica, and broke ground on what became the Saint Peter’s Basilica that stands today.
In front of the Basilica is Saint Peter’s Square, a 251,000-square-foot plaza that hosts gatherings of as many as 300,000 people. The square is encircled by an arcade of 372 columns and pilasters topped by statues of 140 saints. In the center is the Vatican Obelisk that originally stood in Heliopolis, Egypt, made of red granite and weighing over 741,000 pounds.
From the obelisk can be seen the sculptures standing atop the Basilica facade: Christ the Redeemer, Saint John the Baptist and 11 apostles. Among the sculptures are two prominent clocks held by angels, each bearing a coat of arms.
From the street to the top of the dome, Saint Peter’s Basilica is 448 feet high, 730 feet long and 500 feet wide, accommodating as many as 20,000 people. One of the largest churches anywhere, Saint Peter’s Basilica contains more than 100 tombs, dozens of ornate statues such as the Bronze Statue of Saint Peter, and, directly under the dome and over the tomb of Saint Peter, is Saint Peter’s Altar.
Saint Peter’s Basilica was designated as a Christian pilgrimage site by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, and sees 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 significant churches in the world, Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “an ornament of the earth.”