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Apostles' Tombs Have Been Popular for Millennia
Carol Glatz
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013
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Visitors look at ruins from in the 8th century near the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
ROME (CNS)—Ruins of housing for poor pilgrims, a thermal bath for dusty and weary visitors, and almost 2.5 miles of covered walkways and porticoes to protect throngs of pilgrims from the sun and rain—these are just some of the signs of ancient devotion to the "Apostle to the Gentiles" that archaeologists have recently uncovered next to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

As Catholics prepared to celebrate the June 29 feast of Sts. Peter and Paul—co-founders of the church in Rome—the Vatican opened a new archaeological site, which reveals fresh details of the extensive and popular devotion to St. Paul throughout history and how the early church handled the deluge of visitors.

The discoveries underneath the former garden and vineyard of the Benedictine monks who staff the basilica give "powerful witness to the unconditional devotion and service given to the Pauline church," said U.S. Cardinal James M. Harvey, the basilica's archpriest.

The cardinal and others spoke at a June 27 unveiling of the new archaeological area that, beginning July 1, will be accessible to all who visit the basilica. U.S. donors belonging to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums funded the six-year-long dig and restoration.

In ancient times, the bustling neighborhood that sprouted up around the shrine grew so crowded with buildings and shops that the sixth-century historian Procopius said marauders would find the place "difficult to attack."

Studies at the site and elsewhere have shown that devotion to St. Paul "was early and very intense," said Lucrezia Spera, the project's head archaeologist and professor at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology.

Already by the second half of the third-century, there is "extraordinary testimony" of pilgrims' devotion seen in the graffiti they scrawled on other religious sites in Rome invoking the apostles Peter and Paul, and with a number of them putting Paul's name first, she told Catholic News Service.

One inscription, now preserved in the Vatican Museums, is by a second-century bishop from Asia Minor who said "he traveled with Paul as his companion because he always brought with him the Letters of St. Paul," Spera said.

By leaving behind a rich legacy of letters to the different communities and peoples he preached to, "Paul was, therefore, immediately closer to the communities," she said, and such direct writings perhaps helped other people feel closer or more connected to him, too.

"Paul gets there first, before Peter, at the heart of popular devotion," she said.

But under the Roman Emperor Constantine, she said, emphasis was put on the importance of St. Peter because of Jesus' words to him: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church," and a large, grand basilica was built over St. Peter's tomb.

By the end of the fourth-century, the relationship between Peter and Paul "finds balance," she said: the iconography starts to show the two apostles embracing and a grandiose basilica was also built above St. Paul's tomb. The old basilica was as large as Constantine's ancient Basilica of St. Peter.

Giorgio Filippi, an archaeologist and expert in ancient inscriptions at the Vatican Museums, said there were many in the non-Catholic and non-Christian world who respected or admired St. Paul.

When the fourth-century basilica burned to the ground in 1823, a Muslim viceroy in Egypt sent alabaster for the new basilica's columns and windows, and the Russian Czar Nicolas I sent precious stones for altars and other adornments.

The show of solidarity "was tied to the figure of the Apostle Paul, who is apostle of all peoples," Filippi said. The way the missionary saint lived his life until his martyrdom, his travels, how he reached out to all peoples "contributed to people from the whole world, even non-Christians, recognizing his holiness and the importance of Paul's teachings."

The Constantine era saw "an uncountable, truly massive influx of pilgrims to visit the tombs" of the two apostles, Spera said.

In fact, pilgrims wouldn't say they were going to Rome, she said, but rather they used the expression, "I'm going to the tombs of Peter and Paul, 'ad limina Petri et Pauli,'" a term still used today by the world's bishops when they make official group pilgrimages to the Eternal City to pray and report to the pope and the Vatican on the state of their diocese.

While people can have very different reasons for making a pilgrimage to Rome, one thing that has not changed over the millennia is the human need to augment a spiritual devotion with some sort of physical contact, Spera said.

"We don't know how to do long-distance veneration," she said. "We need to have contact through our five senses with the sacred."

She said that is why martyrs' tombs often have a small window or opening so visitors could have visual or physical access to the saint and allowing them to lower down a small piece of cloth to keep as a relic.

The spread of relics, too, was part of this "strong tactile need of devotion," she said.

For centuries, especially in the Middle Ages, she said, Christians saw a pilgrimage as a very serious spiritual exercise. They left everything behind, including their power and riches, to undertake an earthly journey as a sign of their journey toward heaven.

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