By John Sanidopoulos
Even though I'm currently on a break from posting, I could no longer bear to stay away when everyone seems to be having so much fun reporting on the lightning bolt that struck St. Peter's Basilica yesterday on the same day Pope Benedict announced his resignation. There are so many things reports are leaving out, that I just wanted to list a few of the things that came to my mind. Again, this is all in fun, but it may be of some interest as well.
Lightning and the Vatican have a long history. I'm not quite sure how far back that history goes, since what I am listing here is only coming from my memory with little research. Yet we do have an interesting story about the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches and their reaction to the experiments of Benjamin Franklin with lightning and the kite in 1752 and the invention of the lightning rod. Many in those Churches at that time believed Satan, the "Prince of the Power of the Air", was behind storms like those of thunder and lightning, and it was theorized, for example, that by placing bells above churches and ringing them during storms that it would help disperse the storms. While Pope Gregory XIII advocated "exorcising the demons" who "do stir up the clouds", with the invention of the lightning rod this theory was slowly fading. In 1766 Father Sterzinger attacked this theory amidst much opposition from the pious, saying of Franklin's lightning rod:
For his lightning-rod did what exorcisms, and holy water, and processions, and the --Agnus Dei--, and the ringing of church bells, and the rack, and the burning of witches, had failed to do. This was clearly seen, even by the poorest peasants in eastern France, when they observed that the grand spire of Strasburg Cathedral, which neither the sacredness of the place, nor the bells within it, nor the holy water and relics beneath it, could protect from frequent injuries by lightning was once and for all protected by Franklin's rod. Then came into the minds of multitudes the answer to the question which had so long exercised the leading theologians of Europe and America, namely, "Why should the Almighty strike his own consecrated temples, or suffer Satan to strike them?"
It was common before the lighting rod for churches to suffer damage during lightning storms. The Church of Rosenburg in Austria suffered destruction by lightning three times until they had enough, and 26 years after Franklin discovered the lighting rod they installed one, preventing any future damage. St. Mark's in Venice has also been struck and damaged on numerous occasions, yet when they installed a lightning rod 14 years after Franklin's discovery, it has never since been damaged. Some see in this a triumph of reason over superstition. In many ways, it is, but cynics have played on this folly to an extreme for a number of years, asking sarcastically: "Why does the Vatican need lightning rods?"
More on this can be read in Franklin's Lightning-Rod by Andrew Dickson White.
You can buy your own t-shirt here.
Eventually the Vatican did give in to the lightning rod, with two of them in Vatican proper and twelve in the whole area. With St. Peter's massive size, there is no doubt that lightning would strike it often. We actually do know of a few cases in history.
The first comes from reports during Vatican 1, on the two most important days of the sessions: December 8, 1869 and July 18, 1870. These were considered the stormiest and darkest days Rome had ever seen. On the first date was the Episcopal Voting of the new dogma of Papal Infallibility, and the second date was the Papal Proclamation of this new dogma. As the votes were taken and the proclamation read, flashes of lightning struck the Vatican and loud clasps of thunder accompanied the reading. It was also reported that a thick envelope of darkness overcame St. Peter's Basilica, to the point where the Pope found it difficult to read the Proclamation of this new dogma without the artificial light of a candle. It was interpreted at the time that this was either a condemnation of Gallicanism and liberal Catholic theology, or a divine attestation of the new dogma in the same way lightning and thunder accompanied the giving of the Law at Sinai, or it was seen as an evil omen of impending calamities to the Papacy.
To read the article from the New York Tribune that describes this from an eye-witness, see here.
Another incident of lightning striking the Vatican comes from December 22, 1938. The report for this can be seen here, and it read as follows:
During a violent thunderstorm lightning struck the Vatican Palace, smashing the windows of the loggia in the Raphael Gallery. The Pope, who was working nearby in his private library, was not affected.
With the odd coincidence of lightning striking St. Peter's on the day Pope Benedict announced his resignation, it has left many wondering, like it did during Vatican 1, whether this is a sign of condemnation, attestation, or an omen. Or maybe, like most other lightning strikes that hit churches, it is a natural event. Time can only tell for sure. While the optimist can see this as an attestation, like the people of Israel experienced at Sinai, others can equally recall Jesus saying in Luke 10:18: "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." Some say occultist Eliphas Levi in the 19th century depicted the Baphomet symbol to display this biblical verse by the gestures of the Baphomet's hand, but this isn't entirely the case. Nonetheless, conspiracy theorists can have a heyday speculating on connections between Satanism and the Vatican with this event. Yet, lightning is indeed seen as a sign of judgment and coming calamities, as was seen in the 2003 movie The Core when Rome and the Vatican were destroyed by lightning:
Personally, I lean towards this being a coincidental and natural event with nothing really much behind it, except for the fact that the professional photographer who took the video and photo was at the right place at the right time to allow us to speculate and circulate good stories. My only purpose here was to inform my readers that when they see the video and photo circulating, to realize that lighting and the Vatican have a long and interesting history. Here is the video: