Your RDA of Irony

Corporate Christi

Today is the anniversary of the grand opening of St. Peter’s Basilica. So, if you are in Rome, drop in for the festivities. Free Eucharist gelato! Watch the Swiss Guard make balloon crucifixes for the bambinos. And today only, there will be no penance for sitting in the Pieta’s lap. (Come on, you know you always wanted to!)

According to legend, on this day in 326 the Emperor Constantine was at the groundbreaking ceremony and shoveled full 12 bags of dirt, one for each apostle. He really might have had a need for consecrated ground, if only to bury his recently executed trophy wife and oldest son. (The young man and his stepmother apparently got along too well, and Constantine never mastered the Christian concept of forgiving. To his credit, however, Constantine had had a trophy stepmother, too, and he never hit on her; in fact, he didn’t even slaughter his half-siblings when he finally got the chance.)

And, if Constantine had been in Rome for the groundbreaking of St. Peter’s, that must have been a miracle. The Roman army, a second army of contractors and slaves, and the uprooted populace of Byzantium had the impression that the Emperor was among them, laying the ground for a new city modestly named Constantinople. However, Constantine at least was in Rome in spirit and money, financing the new basilica. He even furnished the new church with a supply of relics and artifacts, purchased by his mother Helena on her legendary shopping expeditions. For example, one of his gifts was a pair of columns from Solomon’s Temple.

Of course, those columns were actually Greek and a thousand years younger than Solomon’s Temple, but the Imperial Mother was not exactly a classical scholar. In fact, she was a Greek barmaid who had become the concubine of Constantine’s father–and dumped when Pater needed a more prestigious mate; but Constantine proved a devoted son. So Helena was a gullible customer; but like most nouveau riche, she also could be a terror. When the Imperial Mother wanted the relic of a particular saint or some sacred artifact, it had to be supplied or else. A luckless merchant was tortured until he disclosed the location of the True Cross. He finally remembered that the holy wood was located at the bottom of a well. (As the holy terror of sale clerks, St. Helena might be the patron saint of Jewish Princesses.)

So, with Constantine’s money and Helena’s decorating, St. Peter’s Basilica began construction. It took seven years to complete, and allowing for accumulated additions over the next thousand years, the basilica stood until 1506. By then, the Church did not meet Renaissance standards and so was torn down. The replacement, the one we know and tour, took 120 years to complete. (The Holy Roman Emperors just weren’t as generous as the real Roman Emperors.) But with a commendable sense of history, the new St Peter’s reopened for business on this day in 1626.

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