We honor the two great apostles, Peter and Paul, in the ancient churches where they were buried: the Basilica of St. Paul and the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, both built in the fourth century. The two apostles are founders and protectors of the Roman church.
Rome’s Christians marked the places where the apostles were martyred with special care. Peter, early sources say, was crucified on the Vatican Hill in 64 near the obelisk not far from the circus of the emperors Caligula and Nero and was buried in a cemetery nearby. The Emperor Constantine erected a basilica over the burial site in 326, while Sylvester was pope. Later in 1626 the present basilica replaced it. Recent excavations have uncovered Peter’s burial place under the papal altar of this church.
Paul, according to tradition, was beheaded on the Ostian Way, outside the ancient city walls, in 67. Constantine built a large church over his grave in 386. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1823 according to its original measurements. The apostle’s grave lies before the main altar of the church.
We build churches honoring the apostles and saints, often enshrining their relics in them, because we believe they watch over us even now. “The company of the apostles praises you…From their place in heaven they guide us still.”
Defend your Church, O Lord,
by the protection of the holy Apostles,
that, as she received from them
the beginnings of her knowledge of things divine,
so through them she may receive,
even to the end of the world,
an increase in heavenly grace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Collect for the feast)
To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:
Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.
A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Jerome, the great 4th century scripture scholar and controversialist. These days I’m staying in a place well known to him in Rome– the Caelian Hill and the church of Saints John and Paul.
In Jerome’s day Rome’s rich and powerful lived on the Caelian Hill, across from the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum. Among them were some prominent friends, Pammachius, the ex- Roman senator who built Saints John and Paul, the noblewoman Paula and her daughter Eutochium, who joined Jerome in his venture in Bethlehem to study the scriptures, her other daughter Blaesilla and others.
Interest in the scriptures was high then among well-off Caelian Christians, but the place was also keen for gossip and religious controversies. Jerome loved the scriptures, but he also loved the fight. His relationship with Paula and her family probably figured prominently among the reasons he left Rome for the Holy Land. Paula and Eutochium followed him there, creating a monastic community in Bethlehem and undoubtedly playing a bigger part in his scriptural achievements than they’re credited for.
Jerome’s a saint, but I appreciate why so many artists picture him doing penance for his sins. He needed God’s mercy.
Excavations, Saints John and Paul
Underneath Pammachius’ Church of Saints John and Paul are remains of Roman apartments going back to the 2nd-4th centuries, probably the best preserved of their kind in the city and a favorite for tourists. I went through them yesterday.
Years ago, when I studied here, one of the rooms in the excavations was pointed out as part of a house church with Christian inscriptions , but I see archeologists today consider it not to be so. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t meet or worship in these buildings, only they didn’t create a special liturgical space for meeting or worship. Early Christian evidence says a “house church” was here early on.
Why then did Pammachius build the imposing basilica of Saints John and Paul here at the end of the 4th century? There were many retired soldiers settled on the Caelian Hill then. Did he wish to win them to Christianity by honoring two soldier saints, John and Paul, with a church built over their remains, which are still found under the church’s main altar today?
I wonder if there’s another reason. According to Richard Krautheimer, an expert on Rome’s early Christian churches, the emperor Constantine built St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, the first Christian churches, on the edge of the city at least partially In deference to the sensibilities of the followers of Rome’s traditional religions. He didn’t want any Christian church in the “show areas” of the city, near the Roman forum or the Palatine hill.
Saints John and Paul, Interior
Was Pammachius’ church now a statement to the city that Christianity had arrived and wished to speak its wisdom here at the heart of traditional Roman religion, near the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum? Jerome’s new translations and commentaries, along with the works of St. Augustine and others, gave them something to say.
So this was a church with a mission. A reminder for the church of today?
September 3rd is the feast of St. Gregory the Great, many say the greatest of the popes. I’m sure he never thought of himself as great, he was too absorbed in the troubled times he lived in. Usually saints are recalled on the day of their death or martyrdom, but Gregory’s remembered the day he became pope, September 3, 590. That was a day of martyrdom for him.
Years ago, I lived across the street from Gregory’s home on the Celian Hill in Rome. On my way to school, I would peek through the ancient doors of the library of Pope Agapitus, a relative of Gregory’s, where archeologists were trying to learn about what was once the largest Christian library in Rome. Barbarian tribes later plundered the place on their regular sweeps through the city.
Those were bad times. Gregory was called from his monastery here on the Celian to become pope, but also to take charge of a city under siege. He never was a healthy man and he never had much support. Most of Rome’s leading families fled to safer parts; the imperial government relocated in Milan. The burden of the city and the church fell on him.
Called to a job he didn’t want, Gregory drew wisdom and strength from the scriptures, especially from figures like Job and Paul the Apostle, who taught him that strength can come to weak “earthen vessels” like himself.
In his Commentary on Ezechiel, which we read in the Office of Readings, Gregory describes what he went through. Like Ezechiel, he was appointed a watchmen in the city, supposed to go up to the heights and see what’s coming, but “I’m not doing this very well, ” Gregory said.
“I do not preach as well as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.
“I don’t deny my guilt, I get tired and negligent. Maybe by recognizing my failure I’ll win pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in the monastery I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and give my mind almost continually to prayer, but since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I’m unable to keep recollected, with my mind on so many things.
“I have to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I have to judge the lives and actions of individuals; I’m forced to take part in certain civil affairs, then I have to worry about barbarians attacking and wolves menacing the flock in my care; I have to do my political duty to support those who uphold the law; I have to put up patiently with thieves and then I have to confront them, in all charity.
“My mind is torn by all the things I have to think about. Then I have to put my mind on preaching. How can I do justice to this sacred ministry?
“Because of who I am I have to associate with all kinds of people and sometimes I say too much. But if I don’t talk to them the weaker kind of people wont come near me, and then we wont have them when we need them. So I have to listen to a lot of aimless chatter.
“But I’m also weak myself and I can get drawn into gossiping and then find myself saying the same things I didn’t care to listen to before.
“Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I’m not standing on the heights, I’m in the depths of weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of all can give me, unworthy though I am, the grace to see life as it is and power to speak effectively of it. It’s for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.”
We have to admire Gregory, don’t we? He feels weak, but he’s a watchman looking out for his city and his church. Weakness doesn’t prevent him from serving or being far-sighted. From the Celian Hill Gregory sent monks to England, to the ends of the world, to found the church there. On his tomb in the Vatican is the simple inscription that describes him so well. “Servant of the servants of God.”
Today, Mother Theresa’s community lives on the land where Gregory’s home once was, on the Celian Hill, next to the ancient church of Saints John and Paul. They say Gregory took in 12 poor people for a meal almost every day. The poor are still taken care of where he once lived.
We remember Lawrence the deacon on August 19. He’s a favorite of mine whom I followed through the many churches and works of art in Rome that witness his influence on the Roman church. Some years ago I worked with others to produce a video on Lawrence. (See above.)
Lawrence reminds us that the Poor are the Treasures of the Church. I’m wondering if a good bit of Pope Francis’ present popularity comes from his strong commitment to the poor. He’s reminding the church-and the world too–how important the poor are to Jesus and those who follow him.
Augustine in a sermon on Lawrence says that you don’t have to be in charge of a major relief effort to be like Lawrence, however. Each of us, treasuring the poor in our own way, follow Jesus.
“The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes – not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to look down on their calling.”
We’ all grow in the garden of the Lord. That’s a nice way of saying we’re all have something to give. Who are the poor we treasure?
June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early church of Rome.
It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.
Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.
Nero, at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence, people began believing that he set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.
To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.
“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”
We don’t know their names, how long the process went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. Before the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.
Following usual procedure, the Roman authorities seized some of them and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)
The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)
Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)
You can imagine how those Roman Christians reacted as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy. Did they ask where God was, why this happened, why didn’t God stop it? What about their fellow believers who turned them in?
The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions. Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.
The Gospel of Mark also presents an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion and offers no excusing words for his failure as a church’s leader. Was it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?
Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask: should they stay in this city, this Babylon, a city where they found so much evil? Should they go to a safer, better place?
In spite of it all, they stayed in the city to work for its good. Is the “Quo Vadis?” story an answer to that question?
May God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome to understand the evil we face in the light of the Passion of Jesus. Grant through them too, the patience to do God’s will where we are.
There’s a video about the persecution at the beginning of this blog.
Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”
Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some of the early Roman martyrs put to death here?
Philip Neri, whose feast is celebrated today, is an interesting saint. Some rank him with Peter and Paul, founders of the church of Rome, because Philip helped restore the Roman church then reeling from the Protestant reformation.
Philip came to Rome as a young man and fell in love with the city’s history and holy places. He spent long hours in its ancient churches as a priest and roamed the catacombs of St. Sebastian where early Christians were buried. He became a regular guide for pilgrims searching for their spiritual roots. A familiar figure on Roman streets, he engaged ordinary people, especially the young, who warmed to his cheerfulness and found hope in his simple words. He listened to them.
Uncovering forgotten lessons in the art and monuments of the city, Philip became a guide and inspiration to saints like Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo and Pius V. He made new friends by sharing the beauty of the holy city, especially the great churches of St.Peter’s, St.Paul outside the Walls, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, still the major pilgrim churches of the city today.
Protestants at the time were turning from theology to history to back up their claims against the Catholic Church, and Philip encouraged Catholic historians like Caesar Baronius to research the history of the church with fairness and accuracy. Baronius once said of him: “I love the man especially because he wants the truth and doesn’t permit falsehood of any kind.” He also supported Galileo: “The bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”
Philip thought that church reform could come about best by seeking the beauty of faith in its art, music and tradition. He promoted study of church history at a time when the Catholic Church needed to examine its traditions and roots. He brought gentleness, cheerfulness and friendship to Christian reform at a time when fierce controversy between Protestants and Catholics was the norm. He was unassuming. A biographer said “ his aim was to do much without appearing to do anything.”
He died in Rome on May 26, 1595, at eighty years of age.
The great scholar John Henry Newman was attracted to Philip Neri and entered the religious society he founded, the Oratorians.
Here’s one of his prayers I like: ” Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”