Courtesy of 3DFlags.comVatican City

Vatican City

The second smallest independent country in the world lies within the walls of Vatican City. It's a pure monarchy with its own flag, postal system, newspaper, radio station, and elite military known as the Swiss Guards. (You have to be born in Switzerland to guard the pope!) They must be Roman Catholics, unmarried, between 18 and 25 years of age, and they must also be good-looking. Officially they are supposed to be over 1.74 meters tall, but nowadays this regulation is not enforced too strictly.

Vatican City has plenty of political power packed into about 100 acres. The pope presides over 800+ million Roman Catholics all over the world, and influences the Italian government to a great extent. We decided to become Catholic for a day to get blessed by Pope John Paul II on the day of our visit.

Within the city walls, the Vatican Museum houses an impressive collection of renaissance art including Michaelangelo's depictions of Creation and his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (Capella Sistina). Saint Peter's Basilica (Basilica San Pietro) is without a doubt the most spectacular church in the world. It's so big (6 acres) that you can fit several churches under its roof. There's a building code in Rome that prohibits any building to be taller than the dome (cupola) of San Pietro. In front of the basilica, Piazza San Pietro allows the pope to address thousands of people during his weekly blessings.

An early morning look at Saint Peter's Square. People are filing in for the Wednesday blessing already.

Saint Peter's Square

Here are Robert, Scott, and I getting blessed in seven different languages. The pope is the white speck under the canopy in front of the church. (Man, I wish I was in the scaffolding business. Just look at that façade!)

Pope Blessing

Pope John Paul II taking a cruise through the crowds to say hello.

Pope John Paul II

A richly decorated ceiling inside the Vatican Museum. It's too bad that we can't take photos inside the Sistine Chapel. The frescos are incredible!

Ceiling art in Vatican Museum

We found this ominous looking sculpture in the courtyard of the Vatican Museum. What do you suppose it symbolizes? If anyone knows, please drop me a line; I'm curious.

Sculpture in Vatican Museum courtyard

A ground view of Saint Peter's dome.

View of St. Peter's dome

This is the entrance to the treasury inside St. Peter's Basilica. I'm petting one of the stone lions that guard the gate.

St. Peter's treasury

Beams of heavenly light shining down into St. Peter's. You can see Bernini's 70-foot tall bronze canopy over the main altar.

Cool beams of light

This is the main altar itself, which sits directly above St. Peter's tomb. In the lower level, you can visit the tombs of past popes. The bright orange light is coming through Bernini's star-burst dove window.

Main altar in St. Peter

This is the sealed "Holy Door" to be opened on Christmas Eve of 1999. I have no idea what's behind it, nor does any man alive. All I know is that it has something to do with the jubilee year (celebrated every 25 years). One of the reasons Pope John Paul II is watching his health is because he wants to live to see the opening of this door and the coming of the new millenium. If any of you Catholics out there know the meaning of the "Holy Door," please let me know!

This is Michaelangelo's incredible Pietà. Its fine detail shows his mastery of the human form, and he sculpted this when he was merely 24. (Gee, what was I doing when I was 24?)

Michaelangelo's Pieta

A picturesque view of Piazza San Pietro from the top of St. Peter's dome (Cupola). The obelisk stands tall in the center of the square. The sprawling city of Rome can be seen in the background. The street shooting out from the square is Via Conciliazione, which leads to the Saint Angelo's castle (Castello San Angelo) and the Tiber River.

View from top of St. Peter's dome