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New telescope is changing ideas about how universe began, speakers say

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Orbiting the sun nearly 1 million miles from Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope is reshaping the way scientists understand the universe and its origins, a number of astronomers said at a Vatican-sponsored meeting.

"The telescope is able to see things that prior telescopes just could not see," Jonathan Lunine, a professor of astronomy and department chair at Cornell University, told Catholic News Service Feb. 28.

It has such unprecedented power in terms of its sensitivity, wavelength range and image sharpness that it is "doing revolutionary things" and leading to exciting new discoveries in multiple fields, he said.

Lunine, who is a planetary scientist and physicist, was one of nearly 50 experts in the field of astronomy attending a Feb. 27-29 workshop organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to discuss the newest results from the Webb telescope.

Launched Dec. 25, 2021, NASA's latest space science observatory is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built. It began sending full-color images and data back to Earth after it became fully operational in July 2022.

"The JWST data are revolutionizing many areas in astronomy, from the first galaxies to new worlds," the academy said in its workshop program.

NASA said on its page, "Telescopes show us how things were -- not how they are right now," which helps humanity "understand the origins of the universe."

"Webb is so sensitive it could theoretically detect the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon," it said. 

The telescope can see points in the history of the cosmos that were never observed before -- over 13.5 billion years ago, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang -- to search for the first galaxies in the universe, NASA said.

Anna de Graaff, an independent research fellow in the field of galaxy evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, told CNS she is working to understand "how galaxies, like our own Milky Way, came to be, how they grew into the structure that we see today in the sky."

The Milky Way, for example, is a flattened rotating disk, she said, but, like all galaxies, it started out "really messy and kind of clumpy."

The Webb data "doesn't really tell you about the Big Bang, because we cannot look that far back in time," she said, but it should help scientists find out "how you go from basically a very homogeneous gas in the universe, so basically almost nothing, to all these amazing structures that we see in the sky." 

ring nebula
An image taken with the near-infrared camera from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope shows the Ring Nebula Aug. 21, 2023. (CNS photo/courtesy ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson)

Being able to see these younger galaxies, Lunine said, is changing ideas about how the universe began.

For one thing, there seem to be many young galaxies that are brighter and more developed than it was thought they should be, he said.

"They seem to be growing up too fast. It's like going into a nursery school and discovering that all of the three-year-olds look like teenagers already. So what is going on?" he said. "Cosmologists have to revise how it is that structures form and grow in the earliest epoch of the universe."

Karin Öberg, an astrochemist and professor of astronomy at Harvard University, told CNS the Webb telescope "is amazing at observing water and organics around young stars," which can help them figure out "how planets are forming and how likely planets are to form with ingredients that make them hospitable to life."

Right now, she said, the Webb telescope has been able to give information about the composition of larger planets and not Earth-like planets. But they are hoping next-generation telescopes will provide details about the atmospheres and, therefore, the composition of other Earth-like or rocky planets.

De Graaff said, "I think it's really important to be aware that there is only one Earth and it is a special place. Maybe it's not unique, but it's a very special place."

Lunine said, "The amazing structures and beauty of the universe are an expression of God's creation and of this tremendous sense of order that comes from the creator. We're able to see that now in greater detail and greater depth with this wonderful telescope."

Human beings are a "strange species that span the chasm between the material order and the spiritual, and actually understanding our material origins is really important for understanding who we are," Öberg said.

Science helps explain "what kind of universe we live in and how, in a sense, the universe is put together -- whether it's one that's full of life, or whether we are, in some sense, the sole ark carrying all life through space and time," she said.

If life is discovered elsewhere in the universe, she said, "whether it's bacteria or rational animals, (this) will have some different theological consequences."

"I don't think it's a threat to any dogmatic teaching, but I think it would push us to think maybe a little bit differently about why God became incarnate as one of us and how that salvation is worked out both for us and potentially for other creatures," she said.

Pastoral precedent: Vatican traces blessing distinction to Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' language surrounding pastoral blessings -- which the Vatican said can be spontaneously given to people in same-sex relationships -- is not entirely new for a pope, a Vatican editorial said, and can even be traced back to his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

In an editorial for Vatican News published Feb. 27, Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, cited a distinction drawn between "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" blessings in a document released in 2000 on prayers for people who are sick signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, and approved by St. John Paul II.

The distinction constitutes the basis for the Vatican's guidelines on the blessing of couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples which was laid out in the December 2023 declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Fiducia Supplicans" ("Supplicating Trust"). "When considered outside of a liturgical framework, these expressions of faith are found in a realm of greater spontaneity and freedom," the declaration stated about blessings, which allows " the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex."

The document referenced by Tornielli, an "Instruction on Prayers for Healing" published by the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was its prefect, established "an important precedent regarding the distinction between what is liturgical and what is not," Tornielli wrote.

The headquarters of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The main door at the headquarters of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen at the Vatican in this Feb. 15, 2022, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He pointed to the various prayers for healing referenced in the instruction and which are specified in the liturgical books of the Catholic Church. The Book of Blessings, approved by the Vatican, provides prayer formulas for various situations including for the blessing of the sick -- a blessing that is separate from the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The order of blessing includes recommendations for Gospel readings while tending to the sick and provides a text for a "prayer of blessing" to be said for a sick person by an ordained minister.

The 2000 instruction stated, "Prayers for healing are considered to be liturgical if they are part of the liturgical books approved by the Church's competent authority; otherwise, they are non-liturgical."

That specification, Tornielli wrote in the editorial, "established that there are prayers for healing that are liturgical or ritual and others that are not but are still legitimately admitted."

Liturgical prayers, the older instruction continued, are celebrated with the rites prescribed in the "Rituale Romanum" -- a liturgical book containing the services a priest or deacon may perform, including blessings -- and "with the proper sacred vestments indicated therein."

The congregation's instruction specified that "non-liturgical prayers for healing are distinct from liturgical celebrations," but specified that such prayers "also fall under the vigilance of the local ordinary."

"Confusion between such free, non-liturgical prayer meetings and liturgical celebrations properly so-called is to be carefully avoided," it continued.

Tornielli wrote that such a distinction shows that the use of the term "liturgical" as used in "Fiducia Supplicans" to define ritual blessings, which are different than pastoral blessings, "is certainly a new development but inserted within the framework of the Magisterium of the last decades."

"Fiducia Supplicans" echoed the 2000 instruction by stating that non-ritualized blessings "should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament," and that to do so would be an "impoverishment" of blessings that deprives ministers "of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people's lives."

It added that "the pastoral sensibility of ordained ministers should also be formed to perform blessings spontaneously that are not found in the Book of Blessings."

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Pope Francis greets retired Pope Benedict XVI during an encounter for the elderly in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 28, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A press release published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith almost three weeks after the release of "Fiducia Supplicans" clarified that the real novelty of the declaration "is the invitation to distinguish between two different forms of blessings: 'liturgical or ritualized' and 'spontaneous or pastoral,'" a distinction which Tornielli argued has its roots in blessings administered in other contexts, such as those indicated by Cardinal Ratzinger in presenting various forms of blessings for the sick.

Tornielli's claim counters an essay circulated online shortly after the release of "Fiducia Supplicans" written by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who wrote that the idea of pastoral blessings is a "new category of blessing" without precedent or basis in Catholic magisterium. The cardinal argued that the concept of pastoral blessings developed in "Fiducia Supplicans" was "created ad hoc to bless situations that are contrary to the law or spirit of the Gospel."

Cardinal Müller said that there was no need to develop a teaching on pastoral blessings since blessings of a spontaneous nature were already possible within the framework of the "Rituale Romanum."

Yet the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote that "Fiducia Supplicans" could address the confusion that followed its 2021 negative pronouncement on the possibility of blessing of same-sex couples and "offer a vision that draws together the doctrinal aspects with the pastoral ones in a coherent manner."

The dicastery said the declaration offers "a specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings," one that Tornielli and official Vatican media outlets said was already in motion in the era of St. John Paul II.

Bishops Representing Latin America, Canada, and United States Gather to Pray and Discuss Their Shared Ministry


TAMPA, Fla. - Concluding a three-day summit, officers and members of the Episcopal Conferences of the Americas met from February 26 - 28 at a retreat center to pray and discuss their shared ministry as pastors. The twelve bishops attending included bishops from El Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano y Caribeño (CELAM), the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The bishops issued the following joint statement:

“Following a tradition of meeting that began in 1959, we came to spend time together in prayer, fraternity, listening, and sharing. We talked about our mutual concerns and approaches to pastoral ministry and moral issues including euthanasia, migration, ecological threats to our common home, and the Synod.

“Pope Saint John Paul II said there was one American continent. In our time together, we see the wisdom in that statement. We share much in common and have similar pastoral and social concerns. Our time together has strengthened our bonds of fraternity in Christ and has allowed us to discern ways we can promote a more synodal and missionary Church and work together even more effectively in the vineyard of the Lord.”


Pope has full day of appointments after going to hospital for tests

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The day after Pope Francis paid a brief visit to Rome's Gemelli Isola Hospital for "diagnostic tests," he had a full morning of audiences, including a meeting with bishops from Italy's Emilia Romagna region making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican.

The bishops, including Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, had been scheduled to meet the pope Feb. 26, but the meeting was postponed to Feb. 29 because of what the Vatican press office described as "mild flu-symptoms."

Pope Francis held his weekly general audience Feb. 28, but began the gathering by telling visitors, "I'm still a bit sick," and having aides read most of his prepared remarks.

Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Zuppi, other Italian bishops
Pope Francis meets with the bishops of Italy's Emilia Romagna region as they made their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Feb. 29, 2024. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian bishops' conference, is seen listening as Pope Francis addresses the group. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Immediately after the audience, "Pope Francis went to the Gemelli Isola Tiberina Hospital for some diagnostic tests. Afterward, he returned to the Vatican," said a statement Feb. 28 from the Vatican press office.

The Reuters news agency reported that the pope underwent a CT scan at the hospital on Rome's Tiber Island; the Vatican press office did not respond to a request for confirmation.

The 87-year-old pope had canceled his appointments Feb. 24 and Feb. 26, but he led the recitation of the Angelus prayer Feb. 25 without obvious difficulty. The Vatican provided no health update Feb. 27 since Tuesdays are his usual day off and he did not have to cancel any appointments.

In addition to meeting the group of Italian bishops, Pope Francis had separate audiences Feb. 29 with: Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life; with Father Andrzej Komorowski, superior general of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter; and with Archbishop Rui Manuel Sousa Valério of Lisbon, Portugal, and a group of people accompanying him. None of the audiences involved the pope making a speech or having someone read his text.

Arriving for his general audience Feb. 28, Pope Francis used a wheelchair instead of walking with his cane. His voice was hoarse and softer than usual.

Pope Francis arrives for audience
Pope Francis arrives in a wheelchair for his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Feb. 28, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis also went to the Gemelli Isola Hospital in late November for a CT scan of his lungs. At the time, Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office had said, "The CT scan ruled out pneumonia, but showed pulmonary inflammation that was causing some respiratory difficulties."

The problems forced him to cancel a planned trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 1-3 for the U.N. climate change summit. On several occasions in the first weeks of December, he had aides read his speeches for him. In mid-January, saying he had "a bit of bronchitis," he skipped several speeches although kept meeting different groups.

Pope Francis had undergone surgery in 1957 to remove part of one of his lungs after suffering a severe respiratory infection. He has insisted the operation has had no lasting impact on his health.

But last year, he was hospitalized at the main Gemelli hospital March 29-April 1 for what doctors said was a "respiratory infection." He tested negative for COVID-19.

In 2022 the hospital on Rome's Tiber Island, founded and run by the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, became affiliated with the Gemelli hospital where St. John Paul II and Pope Francis himself have undergone surgery.

The courage of Christian martyrs is a blessing for everyone, pope says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians who never renounce their love for Christ and are faithful to the point of death are a blessing for everyone, Pope Francis said.

"There will always be martyrs among us. This is a sign that we're on the right path," the pope said in a video message for the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, formerly known as the Apostleship of Prayer, released Feb. 27.

The pope's prayer intention for the month of March is dedicated to modern martyrs as witnesses to Christ.

"The courage of the martyrs, the witness of the martyrs, is a blessing for everyone," he said in his video message, noting that it is estimated there are more martyrs today than during the time of the early church. 

praying xavier
People stand in prayer in front of an image of St. Francis Xavier in this screen grab from a video from The Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network. (CNS photo/

"Let us pray that those who risk their lives for the Gospel in various parts of the world might imbue the church with their courage and missionary drive. And to be open to the grace of martyrdom," he said. 

The pope began the video by sharing a story he heard from a Muslim man about his Christian wife while visiting a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

It is "a story that is a reflection of the church today. It is the story of a little-known witness of faith," he said. 

He said the man told him terrorists had confronted them "and asked what our religion was. They approached my wife with a crucifix and told her to throw it on the ground. She didn't do it, and they slit her throat in front of me."

The pope said the man "held no grudges. He was focused on his wife's example of love, a love  for Christ that led her to accept, and to be faithful to the point of death." 

For the martyrs of our day, witnesses to Christ

For the martyrs of our day, witnesses to Christ

The Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network released the pope's prayer intention for the month of March, which is dedicated to modern martyrs as witness to Christ.  

Pope cancels another day of meetings because of flu symptoms

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Saying Pope Francis was continuing to experience "mild flu-like symptoms," the Vatican announced he had canceled his appointments again Feb. 26.

The 87-year-old pope had led the recitation of the Angelus prayer as usual Feb. 25 and seemed to have no difficulty speaking or breathing, and he did not cough.

The previous day, though, he canceled a meeting with transitional deacons from the Diocese of Rome. The Vatican press office had put out a note Feb. 24 saying, "Due to a mild flu-like condition, as a precautionary measure, the pope canceled his audiences scheduled for today."

The press office provided no further information and did not indicate what those symptoms were.

The only information the press office added Feb. 26 was that the pope did not have a fever.

The cancellation came after Pope Francis and top officials of the Roman Curia took five days off for their Lenten spiritual reflections.

In November and January when the Vatican said the pope had "flu-like symptoms" they were respiratory difficulties, which Pope Francis described as bronchitis.

At a Jan. 12 meeting with Catholic communicators from France, the pope skipped reading his prepared text because, he told the group, "I have a bit of bronchitis, and I can't speak well."

In late November and early December, he also suffered from what he described as a very serious bronchial infection.

"Thank God it was not pneumonia," he told a group of health care managers. "I no longer have a fever, but I am still on antibiotics and things like that," he had said.

He had canceled his appointments Nov. 25 because of what the press office described as "flu-like symptoms" and went that afternoon to a Rome hospital for a CT scan of his chest. In the following days, he canceled some appointments and had aides read his prepared texts at other events.

That bout of respiratory difficulties also was what led him to cancel his plans to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates Dec. 1-3 to address the U.N. Climate Change Conference.

Suffering from a respiratory infection, he also spent four days in March at Rome's Gemelli hospital.

He had undergone surgery in 1957 to remove part of one of his lungs after suffering a severe respiratory infection. He has insisted the operation has had no lasting impact on his health.

Pope Francis usually does not have any formal audiences on Tuesday; he was scheduled to hold his weekly general audience Feb. 28.


Freedom to Meet Migrants’ Basic Human Needs Must be Preserved, says Bishop Rhoades

WASHINGTON - Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, expressed solidarity with faith-driven ministries to migrants and noted the special need to protect religious liberty. His remarks commended the February 23 statement issued by the Catholic bishops of the State of Texas.

“It is hard to imagine what our country would look like without the good works that people of faith carry out in the public square. For this, we can thank our strong tradition of religious liberty, which allows us to live out our faith in full.

“As the tragic situation along our border with Mexico increasingly poses challenges for American communities and vulnerable persons alike, we must especially preserve the freedom of Catholics and other people of faith to assist their communities and meet migrants’ basic human needs. I join my brother bishops in the State of Texas in expressing solidarity with those seeking simply to fulfill the fundamental biblical call: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”


Bishop Zaidan Calls for Peace and Humanitarian Aid as War-Torn Ukraine Marks Two Years Since Russian Invasion

WASHINGTON - As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its third year, the need for humanitarian assistance has greatly increased to help the millions of Ukrainians impacted by violence and destruction. People are struggling to survive in the cold winter with little food, heat, or shelter, said Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, he urged the U.S. government to provide more aid immediately to alleviate the suffering of Ukrainians. Bishop Zaidan also expressed concern at Russia’s targeting of religious communities in Ukraine, destroying churches, arresting religious leaders, some of whom have been tortured and killed.

“The magnitude of the suffering in the Ukrainian conflict continues to sear the conscience of the faithful. According to a UN report, the number of civilians killed and injured since February 2022 exceeds 30,000. Schools, hospitals, apartments, and basic infrastructure supplying power have been hit by missiles. In the face of such destruction and death, people are repeatedly displaced, insecure as to where to find safety.

“The Catholic Church, including many Catholic welfare organizations are trying to meet these enormous needs both within Ukraine and in other countries impacted by this war which has raged on for two full years. The USCCB’s national collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe has been critical in providing much-needed aid to the region. Additionally, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative has greatly heightened global food security concerns, increasing food prices, and jeopardizing the health and lives of poor and vulnerable people dependent on food assistance for survival. I urge the U.S. government to do all that it can to provide much needed humanitarian assistance quickly.

“At the same time, there are reports of religious communities, particularly the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, being attacked by Russian forces in territories they have seized. Over 600 religious structures have been damaged, some occupied by Russian forces and turned into military bases. Clergy have been harassed, persecuted, kidnapped, and even killed.

“On January 8, Pope Francis spoke about Ukraine saying we cannot allow the persistence of a conflict that continues to metastasize to the detriment of millions of persons. He also underscored that it is necessary to put an end to the present tragedy through negotiations, in respect for international law. I join with our Holy Father in calling for an end to the violence in Ukraine and call on all the faithful and people of good will to join with the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, in setting aside February 24 as a solemn day of prayer, fasting for the end of the war and for peace to come to this war-torn land.”


Woe to those who end up in media 'meat grinder,' papal preacher says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The media and social networks can be crueler than wild beasts, the preacher of the papal household told top Vatican officials and Vatican employees.

"When they point out the distortions of society or of the church," he said, then "they deserve all the respect and esteem," Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa said Feb. 23, offering his first Lenten meditation of 2024 in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

But there should be no praise when "they attack someone out of bias, simply because he does not belong to their side" or when they are driven by "malice and with destructive, rather than constructive, intent," the Capuchin friar said. 

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, presents a Lenten meditation for members of the Roman Curia and Vatican employees in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in this file photo from Feb. 26, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The reflection came after Pope Francis and members of the Roman Curia suspended their usual activities to participate in a week of personal spiritual reflection for the beginning of Lent Feb. 18-23. A number of chairs reserved for curial officials and Pope Francis were empty.

"Unfortunately, today there exists in society teeth that grind without mercy, more cruelly" than the teeth of wild beasts, Cardinal Cantalamessa said. "They are the teeth of the media and the so-called social networks."

"Unfortunate indeed is whoever ends up in this meat grinder today, be it a layperson or clergy!" he said.

"In this case, it is legitimate and necessary to assert one's reasons in the appropriate forums, and if this is not possible, or it is seen that it is of no use, all that remains for a believer is to join Christ scourged, crowned with thorns, spit upon," he said.

"It is a difficult and painful thing to say the least, especially if one's natural or religious family is involved," he said. "But the grace of God can make -- and often has made -- all of this an opportunity for purification and sanctification."

"It's about having faith that, in the end, as happened with Jesus, the truth will triumph over lies. And the triumph will be better served, perhaps, with silence than with the most aggressive self-defense," he said.

The papal preacher said he would dedicate each of his five Lenten reflections to five of the seven "I am" declarations Jesus revealed in the Gospel of John, starting with "I am the bread of life."

"How did he, Jesus, become the bread of life for us?" Cardinal Cantalamessa asked.

Jesus provided the answer in the Gospel of John (12:24) when he said, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit," the cardinal said.

The image of grain falling to the ground and dying, he said, indicates not only Jesus' destiny, but also "that of every one of his true disciples."

On his way to Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote how he was willing to become "food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread," the cardinal said, quoting the saint.

"This has something to say to us, too," the cardinal said. "Each of us has, in our environment, these teeth of wild beasts that grind us" given that -- quoting St. Augustine -- human beings are "vessels of clay that are damaged by the slightest nick."

"We must learn to make this situation a means of sanctification and not of hardening of the heart, hatred and complaint," Cardinal Cantalamessa said.

"There are many opportunities not to be wasted if we, too, want to be ground to become God's flour, and everyone must identify and sanctify what is offered to him in his place of service," he said.

"One opportunity is to accept being contradicted, to give up justifying oneself, and to always want to be right when this is not required by the importance of the matter," he said.

The other is "to put up with someone whose character, way of speaking or acting gets on our nerves, and to do so without ourselves becoming irritated internally, thinking, rather, that we too are perhaps such a person for someone," he said.

Bernini's baldachin masterpiece disappears from public view until Holy Year

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Like a giant Tinkertoy construction, a skeletal tower of scaffolding slowly inched its way up the twisting bronze columns of the baldachin over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica. 

baldachin scaffolding
Workers are erecting metal scaffolding around the 100-foot-tall baldachin over the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Workers on the ground picked through piles of shiny metal platforms, poles, clamps and couplers to then hoist them up high with pulleys to their workmates above. They had begun erecting the scaffolding after Mass on Ash Wednesday Feb. 14 and it reached almost halfway by Feb. 21.

The 100-foot-tall baldachin was set to be completely covered by metal scaffolding before Easter to allow a team of 10 to 12 restorers to start cleaning, repairing and revitalizing the masterpiece designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1624 and completed around 1633.

The biggest problem facing the restorers "is getting there, that is, to be close enough" to the bronze and wood structures and many decorative details that need to be restored, Alberto Capitanucci told Catholic News Service. 

Alberto Capitanucci, the head engineer of the Fabbrica di San Pietro -- the office responsible for upkeep of the basilica -- poses for a photograph at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Capitanucci, the head engineer of the Fabbrica di San Pietro -- the office responsible for upkeep of the basilica -- said the baldachin is a monumental architectural structure that is as high as a 10-story building.

But it is mostly empty space with its four fluted spiral bronze columns, each set upon a massive marble pedestal alongside the marble steps leading to the main altar over the tomb of St. Peter. The most delicate part of the structure is the canopy above, he said, which is made entirely of wood.

The wooden ceiling "is the size of a vessel, that is, it was designed to be the wooden planking of a boat," Capitanucci said.

Despite its enormous size, Bernini wanted the baldachin to resemble the light, open and airy cloth-covered canopy used in processions of the Blessed Sacrament. The term "baldachin" or "baudekin" comes from a special brocade fabric made in Baghdad and traditionally used for processional canopies. 

The twisting pattern on the gilded columns makes them look lighter and draws the eye upward along decorations of snaking branches of olive and laurel, bees and lizards, until it reaches the top which resembles canopy brocade and tassels blowing in the wind, he said. The top of the baldachin is meant to look like "a billowing sail" of a boat. 

cherubs baldachin
A cherub holding the keys of St. Peter and one holding up a papal tiara can be seen in this close-up photograph of the wooden canopy of the baldachin over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Fabbrica di San Pietro)

The angels holding floral garlands and standing at the four corners are 13 feet high, he said, and four scroll-like ornaments, shaped like dolphin backs, go from the corners up to a globe that supports a cross, which is 40 feet tall. There are four pairs of cherubs holding up the keys of St. Peter, a papal tiara and the sword and book of St. Paul.  

What looks small from below is, in reality, enormous in size, Capitanucci said, indicating that the bees on top are as long as a briefcase. Pope Urban VIII, who hired Bernini to design the baldachin, belonged to the Barberini family, whose coat of arms consists of three bees.

Capitanucci said they used drones to take over 6,000 photographs of the hard-to-reach canopy and its inner ceiling featuring the dove of the Holy Spirit surrounded by golden fire. The up-close images will help them plan how to proceed with the restoration, he said.

The entire structure will be covered in sheer cloth to shield workers from the public, he said, and still let in lots of natural light.

And, once the scaffolding is completely up, the wooden box now protecting the main altar will be removed so the altar can still be used for papal ceremonies for the rest of the year. The entire restoration should be completed by the end of December for the start of the Holy Year. 

enzo fortunato
Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, director of communication for St. Peter's Basilica, poses for a photograph at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, director of communication for St. Peter's Basilica, told CNS the baldachin "is the linchpin of the basilica."

It draws attention to the main altar, which is "the heart, where the Eucharistic sacrifice takes place, the Eucharistic celebration that is the source and summit of Christian life," he said.

The current restoration project, funded by the Knights of Columbus, marks only the second restoration since the baldachin was built, he said, the last restoration being in the late 1700s.

When works of art are preserved well, he said, it keeps alive the belief that "beauty leads to God" and it reminds people "what human genius can create."

The baldachin also symbolizes that it is possible for all people to work together to create something spectacular, Father Fortunato said. Many other artists worked with Bernini to build the masterpiece, including his fiercest rival, Francesco Borromini.

"This makes us understand that teamwork, working together, always bears beautiful and good fruit," the Franciscan friar said.

A historic restoration in St. Peter's

A historic restoration in St. Peter's

A look at a monumental restoration project in St. Peter's Basilica.