.- As the Church begins its celebrations for the 500th birthday of the largest church in the Christian world, Vatican officials today held a press conference to discuss the rich history of St. Peter’s Basilica and outline plans for the birthday year.
On hand for the historic event were Cardinals Francesco Marchisano, archpriest of the basilica, and Albert Vanhoye S.J., rector emeritus of the Pontifical Biblical College; Archbishop Angelo Comastri and Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, respectively president and delegate of the Fabric of St. Peter's; Antonio Paolucci, superintendent of the Florentine Museums and curator of the exhibition, "Petros Eni;" and Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella, bureau chief at the Fabric of St. Peter's.
Cardinal Marchisano began by briefly outlining the history of the basilica, which is actually the second to be built on the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion. The first was built in the fourth century by the emperor Constantine but because of structural frailty it was replaced with the current building, the construction of which began on April 18th, 1506 by Pope Julius II, who himself placed the first stone.
The cardinal also pointed out that the basilica possesses an extraordinary archive composed of some 3,050,000 documents concerning work carried out on the church from its conception to the present day.
It is one of the most visited sites in the world, welcoming between five and 20 thousand people each day.
During his own brief address, Archbishop Comastri pointed out that in 1939, "by decision of Pope Pius XII, excavation work began under St. Peter's Basilica. To great astonishment, the ancient necropolis interred by Constantine's architects in the year 320 came to light.”
“Moving up the slopes of the Vatican hill,” he recalled, “a small monument was found, identified as the 'Tropaion of Gaius;' this discovery was followed by that of the famous red wall with the graffiti 'Petros eni' and a series of other graffiti all testifying to the devotion to Peter in this place."
Likewise, Bishop Lanzani noted that "The Governorate of Vatican City State will issue a series of commemorative stamps of the value of 0.45 and 0.60 euros" to commemorate the anniversary.
"The first”, he explained, “represents the commemorative medal of Bramante, produced by Cristoforo Foppa between the years 1505 and 1506. ... The second depicts the medal placed in the foundations of the new St. Peters, also the work of Cristoforo Foppa." Both stamps bear the inscription: "Templum Divi Petri in Vaticano 1506-1606."
The Vatican also plans to mint two medals for the occasion, one in silver and one in two different metals. Italian engraver Sergio Giandomenico was commissioned to work on the coins.
The Holy See said that one side of the coin will show the consignment of the keys to St. Peter against the background of the basilica, with the emblem of the Fabric of St. Peter's underneath with the inscription "Patriarcalis Basilica Principis Apostolorum 1506-1606" around the edge.
The other side of the coin will bear an image of the current Holy Father with the phrase "Benedictus XVI, Pontifex Maximus" engraved therein.