But the thing is I really love my assignment. I love the experience of being with people as they either encounter St. Peter’s for the first time or rediscover a place they have known for years. The apostolate is absolutely incredible.
Recently, I was reminiscing with a priest about his first experiences in the Holy Land. I was in Jerusalem when he arrived and we ended up riding together to the Galilee region on the first full day of his time in Israel. Our mission was to accompany some journalists from South America. I soaked up his reactions. As we moved along, I would point out little things. Over there is Damascus Gate. That is the shrine of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. This is the Judean Wilderness where John the Baptist wandered and preached. This particular priest was visibly moved by the experience. He reminded me of my first visit, and watching him experience the most amazing place in the world for the first time was like experiencing it anew myself. He displayed raw wonder at the sheer enormity of the land and its importance to our faith.
I’m always sure to warn my St. Peter’s groups “don’t look at anything!” Well, in a manner of speaking. As we approach the front doors of the Basilica after about an hour of history and explanation outside, I generally stop and ask who among the pilgrims has never been inside. Usually the majority of the people tentatively raise their hands. This is actually the most humorous part of the whole experience. They are reluctant to admit that they have not been in. I think they usually suspect I am going to put them on the spot or—worse yet—sell them something!
Instead, I encourage them not to look. In the balcony area just outside the Basilica, there are windows over the doors that give you a little glimpse of the baroque decoration inside. I counsel that it is best to either keep their eyes closed or to concentrate only on the floor until they are completely inside the Basilica and can soak in its grandeur all at once. That is the way I think it was meant to be seen. My line is, “You only get one chance to see St. Peter’s for the first time, so make it count.”
Then I shoot through the doors before all of them and position myself so that I can watch their faces. They may love it or they may hate it, but the pure grandeur of St. Peter’s demands a response. I have never seen someone confronted with the splendor and glory of St. Peter’s Basilica without betraying some sort of emotion. Each time I watch such a reaction on a pilgrim’s face, I feel like I am seeing St. Peter’s for the first time again.
My first visit to Rome was in 2000. It was the Jubilee Year and when I went to St. Peter’s, the Holy Door was open. I didn’t know the first thing about the Holy Door or why it was so important, but there was a long queue to enter through it. Being the sort of guys who do not like to miss out on a good thing, my group of friends got in line. As we approached the door, I noticed (with no small amount of shock) a pilgrim group of older people struggling to crawl through this door on their knees. Now, I was a reasonably adventurous fellow back in those days, but the temperature was Sahara-like and I was wearing shorts so I had no intention of bruising my knees to crawl through a door I had just waited in line for an hour to enter.
We finally approached the door somewhere in the middle of the group, and I began to gallivant through on my feet when, with surprising aggression, I felt a set of hands grab my shirt accompanied by a cacophony of foreign-sounding and obviously angry gibberish lobbed in my direction. I turned to face the cackling hoard of barbarian octogenarians only to discover that I was about to be drawn and quartered for my transgression. I was slightly pushed, but mostly shamed to my knees by a severe woman with a devilish hand at wielding her walker as a weapon, and I soon found myself attempting reentry in a more reverent position.
Once inside, I was awe-struck. I staggered to my feet, hardly noticing my tender shins (bruised not by the kneeling but rather by the impressive World Cup striker-like blows I had taken from an irate Italian grandmother—for whom I am decidedly grateful). I had never seen anything like it. The experience completely escapes words. Try to remember the last time you gasped at something too wonderful to describe, and then extend that feeling for two hours, and you have some inkling of what I am talking about.
Every time I give a tour, I get to watch other people have this experience. It is a privilege and a grace from God, because I am witnessing the Lord communicating to a soul through splendor and beauty, and to witness this work of God is a true blessing.
It will be hard to give up such a rewarding apostolate. But my new apostolate of teaching in a local school should have its own set of interesting challenges and opportunities. I will always be thankful for having experienced the grace to witness people being truly struck with awe at a majesty that can provoke only one true reaction: prayer.
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.