ROME – After a man stripped off his clothes in St. Peter’s Basilica and leapt naked onto the main altar, apparently to protest the war in Ukraine, Italian Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, archpriest of the basilica, was scheduled to celebrate a rite of reparation Saturday.
The incident happened Thursday, June 1, in the late afternoon, as St. Peter’s Basilica was preparing to close its doors to visitors and tourists.
A 34-year-old man of Russian-Polish origin described as suffering from a severe form of depression and various mental disorders entered the basilica and made his way up to the main altar, where he undressed and jumped onto the main altar completely naked, apart from his sneakers, with a message reading “Save children of Ukraine” on his back.
Recently the issue of returning Ukrainian children deported to Russia has been a hot topic for the Vatican, as Pope Francis often has expressed the Holy See’s willingness to help, and he was asked to do just that by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to the Vatican last month.
Photos taken by onlookers and guides present in the basilica at the time of Thursday’s incident began to circulate on social media showing the man, who did not shout or display any physical aggression, standing on the marble altar between three ornate candelabra that rest under the exquisite canopy designed by famed Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
We’ll, it seems to be true…sigh https://t.co/3qkQjXYtGD
— Elizabeth Lev (@lizlevrome) June 1, 2023
Vatican Gendarmes quickly hauled the man off of the altar and made him put his clothes back on before taking him to their offices for identification. He spent the night in Vatican custody, was charged and ordered to leave Italian soil.
On Saturday, Gambetti, who also serves as Vicar General for the Vatican City State and President of the Fabric of Saint Peter, was scheduled to celebrate a special rite of reparation along with the priest-canons of St. Peter’s Basilica.
In the Catholic Church, an act of reparation, including the celebration of a liturgy, is done to compensate or make amends for one’s own sins or the sins or sacrilege of others committed against Christ.
Thursday’s incident has raised security concerns and doubt over the efficacy of the Vatican’s security measures, as the man had time to completely undress and climb on the altar unnoticed before the alarm was finally sounded, and it marks the latest in a series of recent security breaches.
Just over two weeks ago, a man found to be mentally ill was arrested after ramming his car into the Saint Anne’s entrance gate to the Vatican and driving through the small city state.
Gendarmes guarding the door gate shot at the tires of the vehicle in an attempt to stop it, but it continued plowing forward until reaching the San Damaso courtyard of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, where heads of state and other officials typically arrive for their meetings with the pope, before being stopped by police.
The driver of the car was detained and underwent a full medical evaluation before being sent for mandatory treatment for mental illness.
Another incident happened in August of last year, when climate activists entered the Vatican Museums and glued their hands to the base of the famed “Laocoön and Sons” statue, considered to be among the most important ancient works in the Vatican collection and which is believed to date to the 1st century.
The activists, who belonged to the Ultima Generazione, or “Last Generation” environmental group, also hung a banner reading, “Last Generation: No gas and no carbon.”
Accused of aggravated damage, the activists face a penalty of up to three years in prison and $3,230 in fines.
Legend holds that Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans against accepting a wooden horse given by the Greeks during the Trojan War. The Last Generation group said the climate crisis, like Laocoön’s words of caution, is a modern warning that is not being heeded.
In 2019, another man described at the time as psychologically disturbed was arrested by Vatican gendarmes for climbing onto the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica and tossing a candelabra onto the floor.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen