By Elizabeth Lev
Sometime when you get to be friends with people, you forget about the important work they do. In this respect, I have been neglectful in writing about one the finest sources of information on St. Peter’s Basilica, the Web site stpetersbasilica.org.
Alan Howard founded this Web site in 2000 as a nonprofit, no advertising, information site for the Vatican basilica. Although he lives in the United States, he does extensive research and visits Rome regularly to enhance his own photo archive of St. Peter’s.
It finally occurred to me that an interview might be in order.
Alan thinks of this as his Catholic apostolate. “There are scores of Web pages on St. Peter’s, but the idea here was to do something more definitive, more comprehensive. The site now has hundreds of pages and thousands of photos, but it’s really just a beginning, as St. Peter’s is virtually inexhaustible.”
Alan has a family, a busy life and a day job, but he was inspired to take on this other task. “Like so many people that walk through St. Peter’s, I was deeply impressed with the beauty and history that I encountered, and inspired to learn more. After reading the guidebooks, I developed a hunger for more than just names and dates. I kept touring St. Peter’s and learning something new each time.”
What opened the door to Alan’s mission was “the most shocking discovery of the inconsistent presentation of the many tour guides. Some were very good and literally brought the church to life, while others seemed to have no training or regard for the facts. Eventually I resolved to create a resource for both the casual tourist to learn more, and for the tour guides to check the facts.”
Interest in Alan’s site has gone beyond fact checking for tour guides. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, news agencies swamped Alan with requests for information. On April 6, 2006, the 500th anniversary of the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, Vatican Radio interviewed Alan about the historic event.
This year, Alan was approached by the research staff of Sony Pictures for information regarding their upcoming movie, “Angels and Demons,” based on Dan Brown’s notoriously inaccurate novel.
Alan is no fan of Brown’s writings, but he hopes his input will do some good. “Sometimes you can only provide the information and pray for a positive result,” he remarked.
He has gathered a formidable amount of information over the years. “I’ve collected many of the best English books, and most of the site is from these sources. Some of the sources are out of print, and the author or publisher has given permission to place the book online.”
Alan sees his work as trying to present the truth about St. Peter’s. “A few years ago, there was some incorrect and irresponsible information put on the Internet about the search for St. Peter’s tomb. In order to give the complete story, I received permission from the author John Evangelist Walsh to place his book, ‘The Bones of St. Peter,’ online.”
Alan mentioned an important new source of Vatican information, the new vaticanstate.va Web site, which includes information on 10 areas of St. Peter’s in five languages. In his view, “This site has new information on many areas of the Vatican, but one of the things that I love best is the webcams that allow us to watch St. Peter’s around the clock. If you want, you can now watch the light go off in the Pope’s apartment when he goes to bed.”
So the obvious question to ask a St. Peter’s expert is: Do you have a favorite monument, place or memory of the basilica? “Like every other pilgrim that comes into St. Peter’s,” Alan told me, “I never tire of looking at the Pietà.”
But then he added, “One of my favorite things to do when visiting the Vatican basilica, is to go to confession. It’s such a privilege to partake in the sacramental life of the Church. I would also advise anyone that enters St. Peter’s, to put their camera and tour book away for a moment and enter the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is reserved only for prayer.”
Alan left me with one final suggestion. “One of the best souvenirs you could ever bring back from Rome, would be to take your rosary down into the Grottoes and have the attendant place it on the tomb of John Paul II. Then you can have them blessed by Benedict XVI at his general audience.”