What it was like to be at the Vatican for a day?

It might not be obvious, but since I was in grade school, I have been unknowingly serious about my spirituality by participating actively in Flores de Mayo each year after school break and Misa de Gallo during advent. In high school, I taught catechism classes at the chapel of my small village and on my junior and senior years I volunteered to teach religion classes in public elementary schools in my city. I even self-studied how to play the guitar so that I can play hymns during liturgical services in the chapel. Holy Week is one of the Catholic church’s liturgical events that I look forward to, as I love joining long processions, burning lots of candles, reciting the Stations of the Cross and binge-watching and listening bible movies on TV and radio. I strictly followed a week of no-meat diet and even formulated a fish-ball recipe from fresh yellow fin tuna to enjoy the holy meatless season.

Fast forward to adulthood, I joined healing masses, Catholic youth and singles ministries, relic visits, Visita Iglesias and Holy Week retreats not caring about the mob, long hours and unpredictable weather! Then when I went to Europe in 2010, I made a pact to myself that I will save money to visit holy places around the world, taking pilgrimage to Holy sites every few years. So my first destination was Rome, where the Vatican City is enclaved within this Italian capital. My first visit to the Holy See was in June 4, 2010 and revisited in December 1, 2018 and this time the experience was ‘transcendentally esoteric’ characterized by deep thought, meditation and soul-searching.

From any parts of Rome going to St. Peter’s Basilica, the bus stop to watch out for is Cavalleggeri/S. Pietro. It’s the closest one to the basilica. I followed where people were heading and minutes later found myself standing at the immense St. Peter’s Square. There was already a long snaking queue and on this visit I opted to skip the line and get a guided tour (in English) to make the most out of the experience. This tour package includes Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapels fast track entry that will last for 2-3 hours only, about one-third of the time when taking the free but long queue. The tourism office is just in front of the Square and there were uniformed tour personnel scattered around to look for customers. But I recommend going to the tourism office yourself or book tickets online. English guided tours are available only at certain times during the day so keep this in mind. You will get a sticker like this one below to identify you as a member of the group tour.

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We walked for 5 minutes taking another side of the Vatican to reach an entry point exclusive for group tours only. The first leg of the tour was the Vatican Museum. All visitors passed through x-ray machines. It is a highly-guarded place, home to vast collection of art masterpieces amassed by the popes throughout the centuries.

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Former entrance now an exit to the Vatican Museum

After going through tight security, we were given the museum pass and a pocket audio guide (see below). There were several other tour groups in different languages walking side by side with us. The beauty of the audio guide is you will hear your tour guide well even if she/he is 10 meters away among the sea of other visitors. It is easy to locate your group mates if you veer off course.

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Guided tours of different languages inside the Vatican Museum

We were then ushered to the Galleria dei Candelabri which houses Greek and Roman antiques. The sculptures were painstakingly and intricately made. Even the nooks and crannies of the pillars were crafted to the fine details. The ceilings were generously embellished with beautiful mosaic of paintings that span from the entrance to the exit of the massive halls. There were several times I got steered away from my group because I was extremely engrossed by the details of the paintings and sculptures (good thing the flag carried by the lead of my tour group helped in finding them and I was backed on track).

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We took a break before the Sistine Chapel tour at the Courtyard of Pigna, a welcome respite in between museum visits.

We proceeded to the Sistine Chapel at the Apostolic Palace (where the pope resides. It is also the site of the papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected). Sistine Chapel is famous for its frescos, “a technique of mural painting that is executed on a wet lime plaster. Water acts as a vehicle that will deliver the dry pigment to the freshly-laid plaster and upon drying, it becomes an integral part of the wall”. After touring the Vatican Museum, I thought the pieces I will see at the Sistine Chapel were similar to the murals of the Vatican Museum. But nothing could prepare your senses to the brilliantly crafted Renaissance masterpieces of Michelangelo. Taking photographs and talking are not allowed inside the huge Sistine Chapel. This made it one of the most solemn places I have visited where people of different faiths gather and all captivated by the magnificence of the high ceiling or vault painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. He used rich, bright colors readily visible from the floor.

All heads were looking upwards to the ceiling (Michelangelo’s frescoes), then to the Southern Wall (Stories of Moses paintings by various artists), Northern Wall (Stories of Jesus paintings by various artists) and the Eastern Wall. The whole altar wall is covered by Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. What an awesome sight to behold!

At this time our tour guide switched off the audio guide and we were allowed our own moments at the chapel for 20 minutes. Sitting side by side, strangers smile and without any words, all in agreement to the beauty and the artistry behind the works.

The official tour ended up at the main door leading to the St. Peter’s Basilica where I spent the rest of the afternoon in prayer of gratefulness for a beautiful life, for having a constant supply of unfaltering energy despite my seemingly simple diet, for the people who supported me to pursue my passions and advocacies and many other surprised blessings from God.

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Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

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The Pieta by Michelangelo inside the St. Peter’s Basilica

People also spend some time to pray at the tomb of St. John Paul II. Popes who become saints had the privilege of being buried inside the main chapel of the Basilica.

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The tomb of St. John Paul II

Time goes fast when you are immersed into something that you really like. It later occurred to me that I missed lunch and it’s already 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. I devoured on some tasty gelato on the tourist center very close to the Basilica. This ice cream tasted differently from the usual one I had back home.

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After shopping for religious souvenirs and 2 cups of warm espresso, I decided to call it a day and start walking outside of St. Peter’s Square towards the bus stop. But when I heard the church bell tolled around 4PM, I reversed direction and returned to the Square. It seems like something was calling and pulling me strongly and I cannot help it, really! So, I gave in to that strange desire and just spent the late afternoon to early evening at the Square’s fountain and the cloisters of the Basilica still reflecting on God’s bountiful blessings, for always keeping me safe and for giving me a brave heart that allowed me to overcome challenges in the very rough distant past.

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I know this will not be my last visit to the Vatican. I will keep coming back and keep saving, for more religious pilgrimage and adventure travels around the world. Truly there’s a wanderlust in me. “Our jobs fill our pocket, but adventures fill our soul.” – Jamie Lyn Beatty