Tradition says that Peter, whom Jesus made the rock on whom he built his church, came to Rome and died there during a persecution by the Emperor Nero about 64 AD. He was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill after being crucified nearby. Tradition also says the apostle was crucified with his head to the ground, because he saw himself unworthy of dying like Jesus.
The Emperor Constantine built a majestic church over the apostle’s grave in the 4th century, one of the first he built for the Christians of the city.
From the beginning Christians honored the apostle’s grave and esteem for him grew as Christianity grew. He was an apostle of Jesus, along with Paul who also died in the same persecution. Like Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, they are considered twin founders of the Roman church.
Besides being honored at the Vatican, Peter is honored elsewhere in the city. His seizure and imprisonment are recalled at the Church of St.Peter in Chains near the Coliseum and at the Mamertime Prison in the Roman Forum. The small Quo Vadis chapel along the Via Antica recalls the poignant legend of the apostle fleeing from prison, only to meet Jesus going into the city to join his followers condemned by Nero. Turning back, Peter followed his Lord to martyrdom on Vatican Hill.
Christians cherish his memory. The popes resided at the Lateran from the 4th to the 14th century but moved to the Vatican, not only because the Lateran area had become unsafe, but also to be near Peter’s grave on Vatican hill, where great numbers of Christian pilgrims congregated.
What draws so many to Peter?
He was ordinary enough. Paul boasted that he was a citizen of Tarsus, no mean city. Peter came from Capernaum, an unimportant fishing village along the Sea of Galilee.
Paul had a fine educational and religious training. A fluent teacher and trained scholar, he dealt with the religious establishment of his day and spoke its language. Peter was unpolished, with little formal education; he spoke like a Galilean peasant. Whatever religious knowledge he had before he met Jesus came from the local rabbis in his synagogue. He was a fisherman at home on the sea.
Why did Jesus make him first among his followers? It wasn’t brains or talents that won him the place. Nor his loyalty. The simple explanation may be that God chooses the weak things of this world.
We know more about Peter than about any of the other early disciples of Jesus. He was a Jew who moved to Capernaum from Bethsaida, another village along the Sea of Galilee, where he fished with others. Historians say that fishing then offered a good enough living. Archeologists today think they can point out in Capernaum’s ancient ruins the house where Peter lived, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and whoever else belonged to his family.
He was forthright, direct and practical, not afraid to speak up or tell you what was on his mind. He wasn’t afraid to draw a sword or face prison. He saw his own faults and acknowledged them. An observant Jew, but not a professional religious man.
He met Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when he stopped at the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preaching. His brother Andrew brought him to Jesus, after John had pointed him out.
The gospels say that he was a friend of Jesus as well as a disciple. Peter welcomed him to his house in Capernaum. He became Jesus’ companion as he preached in Galilee and journeyed to Jerusalem. He witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching and was intimately involved in the events of his death and resurrection. When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he knew him and fled into the night.
Peter saw and heard what Jesus did. He was an eyewitness. After he rose from the dead, Jesus chose him again to shepherd his flock, even though Peter had denied him.
As an eyewitness, he was the first to testify at Pentecost that Jesus had risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem dismissed him and the rest of the disciples as unlearned men. From Jerusalem, Peter went to the coastal cities of Joffa and Caesarea, then to the main Syrian city of Antioch, and finally to Rome with his message.
When he reached the capital of the empire, he was probably in his 60s. Scientists who examined bones found at his gravesite underneath St. Peter’s in the late 1940s said they belonged to a man of rugged build about that age.
We don’t know what precisely brought Peter to Rome sometime in the 60s AD. Probably it had something to do with the Jewish-Christian controversies going on at the time in the city. Some twenty years earlier, the Emperor Claudius expelled Jewish dissidents–likely Jewish Christians– because of bitter disturbances in the synagogues of the city. Paul’s letters tell of similar disputes in places where he traveled.
There were about 60,000 Jews in Rome then, among a population of almost one million. Did Peter come to mediate between various Jewish factions? Was he invited as a peacemaker who valued his Jewish roots, yet saw that God had revealed something new in Jesus of Nazareth? Did some who heard him speak in Jerusalem at Pentecost while on pilgrimage from Rome persuade him to come to his people here and tell them what he saw and heard?
From what we know of Peter it was not an easy mission. Not only was he older now, but he was always more at home in his own land, among his own people, than he was in gentile cities. He was limited in his ability to speak their language and understand their customs. He would always be a simple man.
Most likely, he planned to return home before too long, or go to another place where he was needed. We don’t know how long he was there. But he was an apostle, one sent by Jesus to the whole world, and so he would speak of what he had seen and heard, as he had done many times before.
In Rome his memoirs were gathered by Mark and later formalized in one of the gospels. He also wrote a letter from here to other churches he had known, urging them in the face of persecution and alienation to hold fast to the hope they had as God’s people. (1 Peter)
But then, a fire swept through Rome in the early morning of July 19, 64 AD. Peter was among those identified as Christians caught in Nero’s dragnet and blamed for starting it. Probably his executioners never knew or cared who he was when they brought him to the Vatican hill and crucified him– one of the ways the Romans executed foreigners.
Some Christian women possibly arranged to bury him in a shallow grave in a cemetery nearby. Women often made sure even those condemned as criminals were buried. As time passed they put up a simple monument to mark the place and Christians came to honor him there. Around the year 200, a Roman priest named Gaius, writes that he has seen the gravesite and can take others to it.
A little over a hundred years later, the Emperor Constantine ordered a massive church built over the apostle’s grave; its main altar situated exactly above the grave itself. The emperor, they say, carried twelve loads of dirt to the building site to honor the twelve apostles.
By the 15th century, Constantine’s church was near collapse, so the popes of the time began building another in its place, which took over a hundred years to build. This is the church we enter today, honoring Peter, the fisherman from Galilee and a disciple of Jesus.
The Bones of St. Peter, ,John Evangelist Walsh, Garden City, NY 1982
An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown, NY, NY 1997 pp 705-725
From Apostles to Bishops, Francis Sullivan, SJ, Mawah, NJ 2001
Antioch and Rome, Raymond Brown and John Meier, Ramsy, NJ 1982
The Petrine Ministry, Walter Kasper,ed. Ramsey, NJ 2006