Paul the Apostle is buried in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. His sarcophagus lies under the church’s main altar. Until 2008, when archeologists uncovered it, it was concealed underground in the same spot.
After their execution in the mid 60s, Peter was buried on the Vatican Hill and Paul was buried along the Via Ostia. Churches honoring the two apostles were built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine over their graves. Constantine didn’t initiate devotion to the apostles, though. Christians from Rome and elsewhere came in great numbers from earliest times to these places to honor these great heroes.
Here’s a video of the church:
A statue of St. Paul welcomes us outside the church’s entrance. He’s an old man, clothed in a heavy traveler’s cloak, bent and tired from years on the road. Yet, the apostle holds a sword firmly in hand, not a military sword, but a symbol of a faith that won hearts and banished the powers of darkness. He has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith,” and here in Rome his earthly journey ended. Pictures on the church doors recall Paul’s final hours, when he died decapitated by an executioner’s sword not far from this spot.
Lifting our eyes to the façade of the church, we see his dramatic journey in outline, from Jerusalem to Rome, as Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ announced beforehand by prophets of the Old Testament. A more detailed description of his mission appears in the paintings around the church walls inside, from his conversion on the way to Damascus, to his death here in the capitol of the Roman world.
If we look higher before we go in, Paul appears on the church’s façade in the light of glory, his traveling days done. With Peter, a fellow disciple, he sits at the feet of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord who taught him so well. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul once cried, thrown to the ground. Now he sees Jesus face to face.
This same scene of glory is repeated within the church itself where columns in procession lead our eyes to a triumphal arch defining the apostle’s grave below and the altar above it. On the dome of the apse, Jesus sits in triumph, surrounded by Paul and his companion apostles and evangelists. “Come, blessed of my father, receive the kingdom prepared for you,” Jesus proclaims in the book of life he holds up to them.
Today, we can see the apostle’s tomb, recently uncovered by archeologists, under the main altar.
Outside the Walls
The description “Outside the Walls” is a reminder that this church, now in a crowded city suburb, was once outside Rome’s city walls on a desolate stretch of the Via Ostia, part of a little cemetery where the apostle was first buried. As they did over St.Peter’s grave, early Christians built a modest memorial immediately after Paul’s death to mark his grave; then in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine erected a small church facing the Via Ostia honoring the apostle.
It did not end there, however. Later that same century, a larger church replaced the small church, as large as that of St.Peter on the Vatican. Why build an immense building like this in an out-of-the-way place, we may ask? Was it devotion or Christian pride?
Perhaps. Yet, some speculate other reasons were behind it. In the late 4th century, hordes of “barbarians” were pouring through the frontiers of the empire, and the Romans–most likely Christians among them– saw the newcomers as pesky strangers: violent, crude and uncultured. The latin word they used for them, “barbari,” dismisses them as little less than savages, unwelcome intruders to an orderly Roman world.
St. Paul once scolded the proud Corinthians for looking down on others and forgetting how God raised them up from nothing by his grace. “The door to faith has opened to the nations,” he said; God welcomes all, no matter who they are. Wouldn’t God welcome these new immigrants?
Did the new church call Roman Christians to open their hearts to these new gentiles as the apostles Peter and Paul had done before? Early popes like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great promoted this new church. Gregory not only welcomed newcomers to the Italian peninsula but inspired by Paul reached out to peoples beyond the borders of the empire, to the misty shores of England and the dark forests of Northern Europe.
To be catholic the church had to reach out to the world.
Peter and Paul complement each other. Paul, a complex intellectual, forged beyond the boundaries of Judaism to address the whole world. Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was a cautious captain for the ship of the church. Their gifts are different, but we gain from both of them. Paul’s sword points to an unknown future and tells us not to be afraid to embrace it. Peter, holding firmly the keys given him by Jesus, calls us to stay close to the Good Shepherd, whose wisdom and love supports us.
The Church treasures their different gifts.