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.
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.
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?