(Solemnity, June 29)
St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, in a fourth-century sermon, thrilled to imagine what Rome would be like at the resurrection of all the dead. Rome’s “two bright eyes,” he wrote, are the bodies of Ss. Peter and Paul, founders of its Christianity. “From this place Paul will be raised up, from this place, Peter. Think of it and tremble at the thought of the sight that Rome will witness!”
Rome is indeed par excellence the city of martyrs and saints, but its jewels and patrons are St. Peter, Vicar of Christ, and St. Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles. Roman Christians kept and venerated their tombs from the earliest days.
Peter, of course, was Simon-bar-Jonah, the Galilean singled out by Jesus to be the founder of His church. To emphasize Simon’s foundational role, our Lord even gave him the surname of KEPHAS, that is (in Greek) “Petros,” “the Rock.” Peter had many human faults, but the Savior knew that this impulsive Jewish fisherman was at heart a man of utter good will and devotion. The scriptures testify not only to his being selected as the leader, but to the recognition of that fact by Jesus’ followers.
The bible says little about St. Peter’s subsequent career. Most likely he was in Rome around 67 AD when he wrote his first epistle, which ends, “The Church that is in Babylon . . . sends you greeting.” Ancient Babylon (in Mesopotamia) was all but a ruin that year, but Rome was often called “Babylon” because of its size and wickedness. There are plenty of early non-scriptural references to the tradition of Peter’s having come to the Eternal City. Only after the Protestant Reformation did religious publicists, eager to discount the papacy, call into question St. Peter’s Roman residence.
In recent years excavations beneath the great basilica of St. Peter have confirmed the old literary testimonies to St. Peter’s presence in Rome. While the bones discovered may or may not be his (one bone looks much like another), archeologists have certainly identified Peter’s ancient tomb, with prayers to him inscribed on the adjacent walls.
These discoveries confirm the old tradition that the Prince of the Apostles was in Rome at least under Emperor Nero (64-68 AD) and that he was crucified there as a Christian, on a cross planted upside down by his own request because he felt unworthy to die in exactly the same way as the Christ whom he had feared to follow to Calvary.
St. Paul speaks more clearly of his own journey to and from Rome, and his two captivities there. He, too, met his end by martyrdom in the Eternal city. Excused from crucifixion because he was a Roman citizen, he was given the “honor” of beheading by a sword. Ancient Roman tradition locates the site of his death at a spot outside Rome now called Tre Fontane, at present the location of a Trappist monastery. His body was brought a bit closer to town for burial in a cemetery on the Via Ostiense. Early Christians erected over his grave, as they had over St. Peter’s, a small mortuary shrine. In the fourth century, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, built a church over the tomb. Although Ss. Peter and Paul probably died at different dates under Nero, they are venerated together on June 29.
Official papal documents refer to the See of Rome as “the apostolic see,” not because there are not other dioceses established by apostles, but because these two super-apostles personally contributed to the foundation of the Church at Rome. Hence, papal seals always feature the busts of both apostles, and the popes, in solemn documents, invoke the special aid of “the holy apostles.”
It is certainly appropriate that the center of a Church established to “teach all nations” should have been established at the hub of the Roman empire by both the “Apostle of the Jews” and the “Apostle of the Gentiles.”
Saints Peter and Paul, protect that Church, and guide the man whose official title is “Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal church and Servant of the Servants of God!”
–Father Robert F. McNamara