The 5th century church of Saints John and Paul stands on the western spur of the Coelian Hill near the center of imperial Rome, across from the ruins of the emperors’ palaces on the Palatine Hill, the Roman forum and the Colosseum.
The Coelian Hill was an important area in early Christian Rome. In imperial times, wealthy senatorial families lived in quiet walled mansions on the hill; apartment houses (insulae) for the middle class and the poor stretched along the roads crossing it. A garrison of imperial troops was stationed there. Some Christians were among these various groups on the hill early on.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (160-180 AD) was raised on the Coelian Hill. Constantine (312-337 AD) built a baptistery, a residence for the pope and the impressive Lateran Basilica on the eastern spur of the Coelian on land he confiscated from his enemies after conquering the city in 311 AD. The bishops of Rome resided on the Coelian from the 4th to the 14th century, then they moved across the city to the Vatican.
Other prominent Christians were assocated with the Coelian Hilly by the 5th century, when the Church of Saints John and Paul was built. The area was a lively spiritual and intellectual center attracting figures like St. Jerome, St. Augustine and spiritual teachers from the Egyptian desert who frequented the homes and churches on the Coelian.
St. Melania the Younger (+439), from one of Rome’s richest families, lived near Saints John and Paul. Shortly before Alaric’s army invaded the city in 410 she sold her home and lands and left for Africa with her husband to be near Augustine and his community at Hippo. Eventually, Melania began an important monastery for women on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
The lands next to Saints John and Paul belonged to the wealthy Christian family of St. Gregory the Great (590-604 ) which gave the church two popes before Gregory: Pope St. Felix III (483-492) and Pope St. Agapitus (535-536), Gordian, the father of Agapitus, was a priest of the Church of Saints John and Paul. A splendid Christian library–its ruins visible today across the Clivus Scauri from the church– may go back further than its patron, Agapitus. The Church of St. Gregory the Great stands opposite to the Church of Saints John and Paul.
After Constantine freed Christianity in 312 AD, Christians from the Coelian must have taken part in an effort to win over to Christianity the powerful Roman majority that remained distant and sometimes resentful of the new faith. The Church of Saints John and Paul must have been part of an effort of Christian evangelization.
Before 312 AD, Christians promoted their faith cautiously; now they presented it boldly, using the Christian scriptures freshly translated by St. Jerome, along with his learned commentaries. The new faith, St. Augustine argued in his City of God, far from causing the empire to fall, offered it a powerful new wisdom it needed. Roman Christians confidently believed they had something to say to their city and made their appeal from splendid new churches, rivaling Rome’s temples and shrines.
Was the church of Saints John and Paul – the first to be built in the “show area” of the imperial city, next to the Roman temple of Claudius, close to the Roman forum, the heart of Rome – an example of this new Christian assertiveness? Until then, so as not to offend the Roman majority, new Christian buildings were confined to the city’s edge (the Lateran Basilica is an example). Was the church a visual statement that Christianity had arrived?
The builder of Saints John and Paul was a one-time leader of the Roman senate, Pammachius (340-410 AD). His wife was Paolina, daughter of the influential noblewoman St.Paula, who accompanied St. Jerome to the Holy Land. They had no children, and when Paolina died in 360 Pammachius dedicated himself to the spiritual life, promoting scripture study and caring generously for the poor. St. Jerome, a long-time friend and regular correspondent, admired the Roman nobleman’s deep faith and keen mind. Another friend, St. Paulinus of Nola, called Pammachius the “most generous patron the church could have.”
Pammachius built his 5th century church using as its foundations three existing buildings, two of them 3rd century apartment houses facing the Clivus Scauri. Most likely, the Roman senator, saw the church as a spiritual and intellectual beacon in the heart of the city.
Pammachius died in 410 AD, the year Alaric and the Goths invaded Rome, creating panic and uncertainty in the city. Many of the inhabitants on the Coelian Hill fled to safety beyond Rome or to other parts of the city. Almost a century later the great Christian scholar Cassiodorus speaks regretfully of abandoning a joint project to promote Christian learning which he planned to undertake with Agapitus, whose great library stood across the street from Pammachius’ church.
As we have already said, the present 5th century church is built on the structures of some houses that can still be seen beneath it. There’s evidence that Christians met in one of these houses, a “house church,” bearing Pammachius’ name. It’s listed among the twenty five early Christian house-churches that existed in the city.
Pammachius’ house-church had another distinction. Bodies of Christian martyrs were buried and honored there, even before the upper basilica was built. Two soldier martyrs, John and Paul, said to have been put to death by the Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362, are the most prominent of the group. By the time of the church synod in Rome in 595, the church of Pammachius was also known as the Church of Saints John and Paul.
Scholars are still puzzled by the stories of the martyrs, John and Paul. Different versions have appeared, the earliest from the 6th century. According to the earliest “Passion” (an account of martyrdom), John and Paul were two Christian officers of the Emperor Constantine, who made them guardians of his daughter, Constantia. Thanks to his generosity, the two brothers bought a house on the Coelian Hill and retired there.
When Julian the Apostate, became emperor, he called the two brothers back into imperial service as his aides. But they refused, because the emperor had betrayed the Christian faith into which he was baptized. Julian, incensed at their refusal, gave them ten days to reconsider; unless they complied with his request, he would charge them with impiety, which was punishable by death. During the next ten days, the brothers prepared for their martyrdom by giving away their possessions to the poor.
Fearful that open persecution would antagonize the Christians, Julian chose to deal with the two soldiers privately. So he sent one of his captains, Terentianus, to their home to command obedience from them and to sacrifice to the gods. When they remained firm, they were beheaded and secretly buried in their home. To cover up their death, officials started the rumor that they were sent into exile. Three other Christians, the priest Crispus, the cleric Crispinianus and the woman Benedicta were martyred along with the brothers.
Shortly afterwards, the truth came out, and John and Paul, as well as the others, were honored at a shrine built over their graves in the apartments along the Clivus Scauri, which may have been their home. Later, a stairway connected the shrine to the church built above.
The cult of the two soldier saints grew as miracles were reported through their intercession. By the 6th century, their names were listed in the ancient Roman Canon; their feast was celebrated in Rome, Milan and Ravenna on June 23rd, which may be the day of their martyrdom.
The two martyred soldiers would have been favorites of the soldiers stationed on the Coelian Hill, who passed their shrine on the Clivus Scauri regularly. They also reminded Christians of Pammachius’ day – who were becoming increasingly more comfortable in Roman society after the years of persecution – that those who follow Jesus must be ready to bear their cross.
Churches share the fate of the places where they are built. The church of Saints John and Paul’s fortune changed following the invasion of the Visigoths in 410. Other barbarian invaders swept through the empire after them, and Rome’s population dwindled from about 800,000 in 400 AD to perhaps 100,000 by 500 AD. Most of the wealthy families from the Coelian fled to the safety of Constantinople or Ravenna. The remaining population either moved from the city or relocated in its westward section, leaving the hill largely abandoned and depopulated. It remained that way until the end of the 19th century.
After a brief shining mement as a center for early Coelian Christians, the Church of Saints John and Paul came under the papal court located at the Lateran area nearby, and depended upon the fluctuating resources of the popes of the time. An annotation from the Liber Pontificalis in the 8th century says that Pope Hadrian I (772-795) “began to renovate the titulus Pammachii, of Saints John and Paul, which had become run down over the years.” Through the dark ages, to medieval times, until today, the church was kept standing by popes, cardinal protectors, religious communities and benefactors who mended, altered or restored its fabric.
By the 6th century, Saints John and Paul was no longer a thriving parish church, but an isolated martyrs’ shrine in an abandoned area of the city. Yet, as Rome under the popes of the 7th century became a magnet for pilgrims flocking to the city’s shrines (especially the shrines of St. Peter and St. Paul), the church of the soldier martyrs on the Coelian Hill also attracted visitors.
From the 11th to the 13th centuries, cardinal protectors provided the popular church with a beautiful bell tower, solid walls and enlarged monastic buildings. Pilgrim guidebooks of the time give the church a place of honor because, uniquely, it contained martyrs’ tombs within the city walls. The 12th century historian and guide, William of Malmesbury, writes: “Inside the city, on the Coelian hill, John and Paul, martyrs, lay in their own house, which was made into a church after their death.”
From the 8th century onward, monastic and religious communities took up residence next to the shrine. The latest religious community making a home there is the Passionists whose founder, St. Paul of the Cross, was a zealous Italian preacher and mystic of the 18th century. Pope Clement XIV, because of his friendship and admiration for the saint, asked him in 1773 to take over the ancient monastery and church. With seventeen Passionist religious, Paul moved into the monastery of Saints John and Paul, and it has been the seat of administration for his worldwide congregation ever since. Paul spent his last years and died there on October 18, 1775.
Paul of the Cross was proclaimed a saint on June 29, 1867. On April 25, 1880 his remains were brought to the beautiful classical chapel built in his honor on the right hand side of the basilica of Saints John and Paul. The rooms where he lived and died, overlooking the piazza, are carefully preserved in the old monastery.
Besides the saintly founder, other Passionists honored by the church are associated with the place. Among them are: Saint Vincent Strambi (1745-1824), former superior of Saints John and Paul, who was named Bishop of Macerata and suffered during the Napoleonic occupation; Blessed Dominic Barberi (1792-1849), who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church; Blessed Bernard Mary Silvestrelli (1831-1911), a superior general of the Passionists who prepared for their worldwide expansion in the 20th century; and Blessed Eugene Bossilkov, a Passionist Bishop martyred by the communists in Bulgaria in 1950.
Today the monastery is a residence for Passionist students from many countries and also the site of the community’s administration.
In the late 19th century, a Passionist religious, Father Germano Ruoppolo (1850-1909) conducted extensive excavations under the church. He uncovered the remains of the early 2nd and 3rd century apartments and homes that were the foundations of the later basilica, as well as the streets of the ancient site and the confession where the martyrs were honored.
Father Germano was also the spiritual director of St. Gemma, an Italian mystic who, from her childhood, was devoted to the mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Today, she is buried in a shrine named in her honor in Lucca. Not far from her rests the body of her saintly guide, Father Germano, Passionist; his own cause for canonization is in process.
Father Germano’s successor in the excavations at Saints John and Paul was Passionist Brother Lambert Budde, who worked there from 1909-1911.
Further explorations were conducted from 1956-1958 through the generosity of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John Kennedy. Cardinal Terence Cooke and Cardinal John O’Connor, successors to Cardinal Francis Spellman as archbishops of New York, also had title to this important Roman church.
The present cardinal protector of Saint John and Paul is the archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan, who took possession of the church February 24, 2001.
Visiting Saints John and Paul
The bell tower was built in the 12-13th century over the travertine foundations of the 1st century Temple of Claudius and the Claudianum. The large sunken door to the left of the bell tower on the piazza leads to an ancient street before the Claudianum.
The buildings to the left of the bell tower belong to the 11-12 century Monastery of Saints John and Paul, built by Cardinal Theobald. Its original entrance, now enclosed, is seen to the right of the narthex (or porch at the entrance to the basilica) on the piazza. The double-arched windows above the door to the Claudianum mark the room where St.Paul of the Cross died. (October 18,1775)
The narthex was constructed by Cardinal di Sutri in the middle of the 12th century to protect pilgrims from the weather. Above it is the 13th century gallery, built by Cardinal Savelli, who became Pope Honorius III.
The five large pillars above columns on the upper facade of the basilica are from the original 5th century basilica.The large round dome to the right of façade was constructed in the 19th century as part of the shrine to St.Paul of the Cross.
On the left hand side of the basilica is the ancient street, Clivus Scauri, connecting the Coelian Hill to the Palatine Hill. Spanned by seven brick arches that buttress the 5th century church, the road runs past the 3rd century apartment houses on which the church is built, parts of which can be seen in the church’s foundations.
The excavations under the church can be visited from an entrance on the Clivus Scauri.
Inside the church, the story of Saints John and Paul is told in the paintings in the apse.
There is a painting of Pammachius above an altar to the upper right of the church.