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St. Paul Outside the Walls

 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:

St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

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.

Websites:

http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/index_en.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061211-saint-paul.html

Waiting for Christmas

Every year we’re invited to enter the mystery of Christmas. Of course we can refuse to welcome this mystery of God.

That’s what Ahab, king of Israel, did, according to last Saturday’s first reading for Mass. He refused to engage with God. “Come, ask for a sign, Let me open the mysteries of life to you,” God said to him. But Ahab, the busy, proud. self-aborbed man,  said “No.” –as politely as he could– “I will not tempt the Lord.” In other words, “Don’t bother me.”

God would send a sign anyway.

This is the time to open our minds and hearts to the mysteries of God and if we do we’ll be blessed.

The other day a woman was telling me about her little girl, Isabel. She’s in the first grade in a little Catholic school down the street from us and they’re into the Christmas story these days..

“She can’t wait to go to school these days, ” her mother said. They’re putting together a creche for the Baby Jesus and they’re learning all about the angels, and the wise men who come to the stable on camels, and Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the wicked king who want to kill all the babies in Bethlehem. They’re offering little prayers that the whole world be blessed when he comes.

Isabel is enthralled by it all. “Mommy, did you know Jesus had to sleep on straw. That  straw we put in the crib would  hurt him when he slept on it.”

Isabel was asking what she was going to get for Christmas, and her mother told her that before we open our hand to get anything we have to open it to give something.

So Isabel is asking now for enough money to buy presents for everyone in the world. She’s going to have to see the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States for a bailout like that, her mother says.

Why do we lose that childlike wonder and ability to be engaged?  Why do we become like Ahab, not wanting to be bothered about this great sign?

Every once in awhile we’re spurred by something we hear. I heard it in Isabel. I heard it too in St. Bernard’s  beautiful  sermon  on Luke’s gospel of the annunciation, when the angel invites Mary of Nazareth to conceive the Child. Here’s a summary of it:

“You hear, Mary, that you will conceive and bear a Son; you hear it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel waits for your answer; it’s time he returns to God who sent him. We wait for your answer too.

Salvation will be ours if you consent. In the eternal Word, we all came to be made. At your answer we can be remade and brought to life.

Adam with his sorrowing family exiled from Paradise begs you to respond.
Abraham and David asks to agree. The patriarchs and all our ancestors look  for your answer. All the earth waits to hear.

Answer quickly, O Mary, quickly answer the angel and through him the Lord. Say the word and receive the Word of God; say your word, and receive God’s Word. Speak a passing word, and embrace the eternal Word.

Don’t delay or be afraid. Open your heart to faith, your mouth to praise and your  womb to the Creator.  The desired of the nations is at the door knocking. Open to him.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”

Relics

You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.

Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking,  we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.

Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.

The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.

Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.

You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan,  but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)

God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say.  God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.

The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.

Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul,  are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.

Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.

One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.

At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.

A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering  faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.

In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.

A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of  Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.

Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.