Peter and Paul are two pillars of Christianity. Both were martyred in Rome. There are major basilicas over each of their graves. There are small churches over the locations where each was martyred.
The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, is one of the four major pilgrimage churches in Rome. The others are San Pietro (Saint Peter’s), Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), and San Giovanni in Laterano (Saint John Lateran). Saint Paul Outside the Walls is fairly new since the previous building was completely destroyed by a fire on the night of July 15-16, 1823. Reconstruction started immediately with contributions of money and materials from all over the world.
We had not been to this church for many years and wanted to see it. Saints Peter and Paul are the patron saints of Rome. Their feast day is June 29th. There were some grand celebrations in Rome on that night, including a large fireworks display based at Castel San Angelo, not far from our apartment. Paul is frequently depicted with a sword, though he never carried one. He advises us to “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). And from Hebrews 4:12, once thought to have been written by Paul, “Indeed, God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
A church was first built here over the grave of Saint Paul by Emperor Constantine and consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324. It was expanded and modified several times. In 440-461, a significant expansion of the original church was undertaken. The orientation of the Basilica was reversed so that the main altar would remain positioned immediately over the sarcophagus of Saint Paul. There have been monasteries around the Basilica through most of its history. The adjacent cloister was not damaged by the fire and dates from the 13th century.
In two rows going completely around the church, there are medallions showing the bust of each of the 266 popes from Peter to Benedict XVI. Some lists do not include Pope-elect Stephen. He died three days after being elected in March 752. Since he was never consecrated, some lists of popes have only 265 names. There is a medallion for Pope-elect Stephen in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. He was removed from the “official” list of popes in 1961. We did not count the medallions. There may be other discrepancies between the medallions and the 1961 list of popes. Below are photos of the first three popes and the current and former pope.
Also in the courtyard is an olive tree. A plaque states: “Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, planted this olive tree on 23 January 2011. Linked to the tree placed in Lutherstadt Wittenberg (Germany), it is a sign of the growth in communion between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church”. I hope the growth continues.
Paul was beheaded on June 29, 67. He was sent to Rome because he had appealed to the emperor. After a lengthy wait in quarters that he himself rented (visible beneath the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata), he was acquitted. He was martyred during the persecutions during Nero’s reign as emperor. The Church of Saint Paul of the Three Fountains (Chiesa di San Paolo alle Tre Fontane) stands at the spot where he was martyred. Legend has it that his head bounced three times and water spouted from the earth at those three spots. The church also contains a granite pillar that was used in his beheading. Paul was buried nearby on Via Ostiense, which was lined with tombs as were all major roads leading out of Rome.
Two legends relate Peter’s martyrdom on October 13, 64. One legend says Peter was martyred by crucifixion along with hundreds of other Christians in Nero’s Circus and was buried on Vatican Hill. A circus in ancient Rome was a horse race track. Nero’s Circus was located just below the Vatican Hill which was a cemetery at that time. Nero’s Circus was entirely within today’s Vatican State. Peter’s grave was marked with a stone and a few years later by a small monument. Finally, in 324 Constantine approved construction of the first Basilica of Saint Peter. It was consecrated in 326 and completed in 351. It was pillaged by barbarians in 410, 546, and 846. After 1100 years, it was in danger of falling down. In 1503, Pope Julius II contracted Bramante and others to build the replacement church that we see today, though it was not completed until 1626. The grave of Saint Peter is immediately below the main altar of the Basilica.
The other legend says Peter was martyred by crucifixion on the southern end of the Janiculum Hill and buried on Vatican Hill. Today, there is the church of San Pietro in Montorio and in its courtyard the Tempietto. The church was built in the 15th century with funds from Ferdinand II of Spain. Bramante designed and built the small temple in the courtyard. It was his first project in Rome and was completed in 1499. Below is a photo of this little masterpiece. In a small chapel beneath this small temple, there is an inscription in marble describing this as the location of Peter’s crucifixion. See photo, below.
Are these sites the real martyrdom and burial locations? They probably are the correct locations. But they are not documented. At that time, there were very serious persecutions. For about 250 years, it was illegal to be a Christian. For several years at the time of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the persecutions were particularly violent and extensive. Of course, no one wrote news articles, books, or blogs about the martyrdom and burial of Peter and Paul. Doing so would result in an immediate trip to the chopping block. However these sites were pilgrimage sites for Christians from all over the world. Witnesses told other faithful, who told pilgrims, who told other pilgrims. A lot of things we believe are based on tradition such as this.
Is it important that these sites are the correct locations and that the graves actually contain the remains of Peter and Paul? No. These locations are only “sacramentals”. They remind us of the saint and invite us to reflect on the life of the saint and to imitate the saint in some way so that our lives might become more holy. The Catholic Church has a rich heritage of sacramentals – things that help us grow closer to God.