A Mystical Experience in St. Peter’s Basilica

saint peters basilica, rome, papacy, pope

saint peters basilica, rome, papacy, pope

There are so many reasons to love Catholicism that I am faced with the proverbial embarrassment of riches when I speak of Catholicism’s beauty. Yet, there is one reason that overwhelms them all and binds them all together: her mystical character.

The word “mystical,” in relation to Christ and His Church, means that the Spirit of Christ enlivens the whole Church in all its parts with a vitality that goes far beyond any animating force in this world. The very holiness of God dwells in the Church and gives her life. During Easter time we are accustomed to calling this mysticism “glory,” but we need the right kind of eyes to see Christ’s glory for what it is.

Glory in St. Peter’s Basilica

In the mid-1980s I was a member of a choir on pilgrimage in Rome, which happened to occur at the same time Pope John Paul II was hosting a meeting of all the American archbishops. As good fortune would have it, our choir was invited to sing for the Holy Father’s Mass with the archbishops. Needless to say, we were all elated at the opportunity. What we got, however – or at least what I personally got – from that experience was much more than a chance to serve the pope and the bishops. That alone would have been grace enough for me. But God had something more in store.

The Mass took place at the Cristo Rey (Christ the King) altar on the lower level of St. Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, our choir was situated behind one of the many massive pillars holding up the whole basilica from below the main floor. And when I say “massive” I mean massive. Each of the granite pillars at that level must have been fifty feet in circumference. The massive pillars made me fully appreciate the words of Christ that “on this rock” He would build His Church. The entire area surrounding the Cristo Rey altar seemed like a small forest of immense, man-made, granite tree trunks blocking everything in sight.

Faith Comes Through Hearing

That morning our choir was ushered into the altar area by an officious cleric in a fancy cassock, and we took up our position behind the gigantic pillar. There was just enough light to see our music but the rest of the surrounding space was dark. From our vantage point we could see only part of the sanctuary, which was lit up brightly, but whose light didn’t penetrate to where we were. To add to our frustration, we could see nothing of the pope when he was in the sanctuary – we could only hear his voice. Despite our unique opportunity, the luck of the draw had landed us ‘in the cheap seats.’

The Mass was familiar to us in every way but with one difference: even though we couldn’t see him, we were in the electrifying presence of John Paul II, the Vicar of Christ. So we settled in to the Mass with a somber resignation.   We were, after all, there as servants; it was not our ambition to get front row seats. We were there to offer ourselves unselfishly to the expressed need of the Church at that moment.

An Exercise in Blind Faith

But humility and service have their own reward. Maybe because of our humble status, the occasion became one of the most profoundly prayerful experiences of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass I’ve ever experienced. Precisely because our sight of the altar (and the pope) was blocked, it was literally an exercise in blind faith. We remained, for the entire length of the Mass in the dark. We were guided through the course of the liturgy simply through our sense of hearing, which St. Paul says is the faculty by which we receive the gift of faith (Romans 10:17). But when it came time to receive Holy Communion, everything changed.

I remember filing into the communion line behind my companions. We were still in the dark, with our heads down, properly recollected for the moment. Marching forward silently, we were like sheep trudging in single file through a darkened, narrow corridor. We blindly followed the line as it wound its way around one of the huge pillars at the edge of the sanctuary, but we could not see the head of the communion line. We just kept walking, slowly and reverently, in the certain hope that we were going to meet our Lord.

Finally, as I emerged around the curve of the pillar and into the light of the sanctuary, I saw standing before me Pope John Paul II himself. He was holding up the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, offering Jesus to me as an altar boy extended a paten beneath my chin.

“Corpus Christi,” he said.

The “Union” of Communion

Pope John Paul’s face at that moment could only be described as radiant, but that impression didn’t come from the lights of the sanctuary. I had the distinct feeling that I was looking up into the face of a most noble and innocent child, deeply happy and at peace with all things. As he said those words he fixed his gaze on me with his placid, deep, dark blue eyes. Did I discern a twinkle in them?

Heart bursting and with spirits soaring, I responded simply, “Amen.”

In return, the Holy Father seemed innately to sense my interior state of – what shall I call it – awe, trepidation, smallness? It was, after all, a moment of communion where any words other than “Corpus Christi” and “Amen” would have been an obstacle to grace. Our communication, or rather, our communion, at that instant seemed to take place on some loftier plane. I was receiving the very Person of Jesus Christ, my Lord, from the Vicar of Christ on earth, in an aura of marvelous light that felt transcendently human and divine at the same time. At this place, a mystical summit, the hearing that had aided me so well in the darkness fell away and gave place to sight. Like Peter on Mount Tabor my heart clamored to build booths on top of that mystical mountain and capture the radiance of Christ’s glory forever.

A Timeless Moment

The moment of communion lasted only four or five seconds in real time and then, unhappily, I could not stay on Tabor any longer. My brief moment with the Holy Father was over, and I wound back around the big pillar to my seat in the darkness. Relishing the taste of the simple wafer as it penetrated into the recesses of my body, the deeper recesses of my soul were transfixed by the Presence of my Lord and seared by the blazing experience of His Vicar. Too soon the choir director gently tapped his podium. I snapped back into service mode again, singing to conclude the Papal Mass and fulfilling the mission that Christ had given me at that moment.

So many years later I cannot recall whether the Mass at the Cristo Rey altar took place during the Easter Season or at some other time in the Church calendar. Regardless, it was as pure an experience of the resurrected glory of Christ as I have ever had. I was a different man after that. I was full of light for the first time in my young life, and so much of my subsequent adult story was written on that day.

The Mystical Dimension is Most Real

Even as I reflect back on my experience I feel the inadequacy of my description of that supremely beautiful moment. There is no other term for it except to call it a mystical experience. But I am not a mystic, at least not in the classical sense. I don’t have these types of experiences on a regular basis. In fact I would be hard-pressed to name one or two experiences comparable to that one in my whole life of faith. Yet, the mystical dimension of the Church transcends my little and insignificant life. It is another reality altogether. It is God’s eternal Presence entering the world and uniting earth and heaven in real ways throughout human history. And He allowed me to understand that in a flash, so to speak, at the Cristo Rey altar.

Catholics’ affection for their Church often gets derailed by her all-too-human dimension. This is completely understandable as Church History can sometimes be more a cause of scandal than admiration. Admittedly, I, like many others, often get fed up with church politics, There are also times when I get frustrated with my own inability to live up to the creed I love and profess so passionately. But Christ’s Church in its temporal dimension bears all the vices and virtues of the human condition.

When I feel fed up or frustrated, though, I simply conduct a mystical exercise. I retreat into my deepest center and go on pilgrimage back to the glory of the Cristo Rey altar … or was it the Hill of the Resurrection?

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6 thoughts on “A Mystical Experience in St. Peter’s Basilica”

  1. ‘Hate to be the bearer of a “downer,” but the writer’s awe resides in the wrong person! What is awe-ful (in the best sense of the word) is that any of us Catholics can receive the very same Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Savior at any Mass at any time anywhere in the world. I understand the special circumstances, but this essay is like someone writing a restaurant review of a feast of a meal focusing on the impressiveness of the waiter.

  2. I had the same mystical experience in my lifelong dream of visiting the Vatican. We were going to St. Peter’s Basilica to witness the local seminarian being ordained. Entering the Basilica, we were on our own to find seats, with the seats nearest the altar already taken. We sat down towards the middle of the Basilica, knowing we wouldn’t be able to see anything happening during the ordination on the altar. I looked over to my right only to see myself sitting next to the amazing statue of St. Helen, my deceased mother’s patron saint. I knew my mom was speaking to me at that moment, telling me she was alright. A Catholic moment. Then I looked over to my left to see I was also sitting near the chains of St. Peter! This was not planned! How close I was to St. Peter’s tomb! I was at the root of my Catholic beliefs, a feeling only expressed in the supernatural! A Catholic moment!

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