Respect for saint peter

Respect for saint peter

Every visitor to Rome wants to see St. Peter's Basilica. But not everyone knows how to behave. This requires a lot of nerves from the supervisors. But not all visitors reach the threshold of St. Peter's.

Ivan at the entrance watches like a lynx. One minute he's signaling to a hipster to take off his hat, the next he's waving up three girls who have settled down on a marble pedestal, and now he's gently pushing a lame-footed group of Chinese ahead and urging a loud boy to be quiet. Ivan, 29-year-old Ukrainian seminarian in immaculate black suit and steely gaze, is a doorman at St. Peter's. One hour. Then there is a change. It's too stressful.

"After Saint Peter comes the whole world," says art historian Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella. That sounds proud, but it also indicates a problem. The number of visitors has risen steadily in recent years to 35,000 a day.000 a day. Pope Francis "attracts people of all cultures and religions like a magnet – and the basilica has to adapt to this success". That's the balance of Carlo-Stella, who is retiring after 16 years in charge of the cathedral building lodge.

Indulgence towards long-distance travelers who "may have a different idea of religiosity" and, on the part of visitors, respectful behavior worthy of the largest basilica in Christendom. Carlo-Stella expects both. Enforcement lies with the overseers – the traditional "sampietrini," assisted by papal gendarmes and volunteers. All told, 50 men per shift, one in the morning, one in the afternoon.


What visitors reach the threshold of Saint Peter is already pre-screened. The security check filters out armed people, and people with too much bare skin make it to the vestibule at most. Covered shoulders for the ladies, knee-length legwear for both sexes – that's still the rule of thumb.

For women with too tight a top, the basilica has scarves available. "You have to give people what they need," says Carlo-Stella, who has been with the cathedral administration for 16 years. Only men wearing shorts have to stay outside. "We don't have that many shorts."

A special clientele are the cruise groups. Spat ashore in Civitavecchia, they complete Rome in a day and often arrive a bit out of shape. The usual route leads from the Vatican Museums down to the basilica. Some don't even realize that they are moving from an art collection to a place of worship.

Instructions from the Vatican to tour guides have helped somewhat; also, multilingual audio cues in the atrium prepare visitors for the sacred space. But this system comes up against acoustic limits. The building is simply too big.

Secular background noise

For the same reason, the introduction of sacred background music in the basilica itself failed. While in the papal tombs of the lower church a sacred sound system immediately ensured better behavior of the visitors, according to Carlo-Stella, this solution fails for the gigantic cathedral for technical reasons. Instead of sacred sounds or devotional silence, secular background noise prevails.

Making phone calls is taboo, as is eating and drinking or imitating pious gestures for photo purposes. But there are gray areas. A man with a beard and a blue turban enters the basilica. If he is a Sikh, the covered head means for him a sacred duty.

Doorman Ivan lets him through. Here, respect for religion goes the other way around.

Carlo-Stella has noticed that stricter rules of decency apply in other cultural circles, for example in the Islamic world; in her view, Christian countries would also benefit from more consistency. At the heart of the matter for them, however, is education and discipline in general: "Some visitors need to understand that if they don't do things at home, they can't do them here either."

Video surveillance

Example doodles. Someone constantly immortalizes himself in the stairway to St. Peter's dome because he thinks he is unobserved. Far from it: the entire area is under video surveillance, not least for the safety of visitors. Again and again one gets heart problems or anxiety attacks. So far, all have been saved.

It is by no means only the impious or non-Catholics who misbehave in St. Peter's. A white-haired Sampietrino, who wishes to remain anonymous, has had to reprimand priests who held up their cell phones for a photo during the most sacred moment of Mass.

Carlo-Stella regrets that the sense of silence and contemplation is declining somewhat in the present day. Her wish would be that "society understands the meaning of the sacred again more".

Sometimes it shows, this sense. When a young woman slaps her hands in front of her mouth with excitement as she enters the basilica, a smile crosses Ivan's face.

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