Even More on the Year of Saint Paul

The Tomb

Because the coming year will be, by designation of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, dedicated to Saint Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles (sometimes called "of the Nations"), a significant amount of attention currently is being directed to the tomb of the great Tentmaker of Tarsus, turned Bishop, Apostle, Missionary, and Saint, and who, along with Saint Peter, is always considered as one of those who firmly established the Catholic Church in Rome.

His tomb rests beneath the high altar of the splendid Roman Basilica named for him, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, (a Basilica sometimes called "Without the Walls" as distinct from "Within"), where his earthly remains, along with those of his famous disciple, Saint Timothy, await the resurrection of the just at the end of the world.

The most ancient and authentic tradition tells us that, as a Roman citizen, Saint Paul underwent his martyrdom in the year 67 in the more immediate and quicker form of beheading, rather than by the slower torture of crucifixion as did Saint Peter. He was killed at the location where there is now the Shrine and Monastery of the Three Fountains (a place the pagan Romans named "Aquas Savias"), and then his body was buried in an old cemetery, a necropolis, about three miles up from there, where the Basilica is now located, on the famous "Via Ostiense", the road leading from Rome to the seaport of Ostia. Saint Paul's execution took place outside the old city walls because the laws of ancient Rome prescribed that Roman citizens, when convicted of capital crimes, could only be put death outside the city. They also required that all the dead, whether cremated or not, could only be buried or disposed of outside the city walls.

The Basilica

One of the first things that the Emperor Constantine did, after issuing the Edict of Milan in 313, permitting the Catholic Church to emerge from the catacombs after three hundred years of intermittent persecution, and making Christianity the official religion of the entire Empire, was to order the construction of a huge Church exactly over the tomb of Saint Peter and another over the tomb of Saint Paul. Because the burial places of those two Apostles were considered sacred and were, even during the years of persecution, places of pilgrimage, Constantine did not allow the graves to be moved or touched, but had the Basilicas built in such a way that their high altars would be directly over the sepulchers of the saints.

The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Paul vied in magnificence in Rome with that of Saint Peter. It was continually beautified and enhanced over the centuries, particularly by the Emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius, Arcadius, and by Pope Leo III. Because of its beauty it was even spared by the barbarian tribes in their attacks and invasions by which they assailed Rome in the course of the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, on July 15, 1823, a workman's carelessness caused a huge fire, and the Basilica burned to the ground with all its wealth of art, its Constantinian architectural glory, its fine mosaics, and its irreplaceable paintings. Pope Leo XII immediately undertook its reconstruction, using the plans kept from the time of the Emperor Theodosius which were found undestroyed. As much as possible of the still useful material from the old structure that was recoverable was incorporated into the reconstruction. However, those who knew the old Basilica consider its replacement, splendid as it is, not nearly as fine as the one that was there before.

Recent Work

The fire did not destroy the great arch over the high altar, nor the altar itself, nor the tomb of the Apostle, all of which are still intact. The arch's mosaics depict Christ with the twenty-four Elders and two adoring angels and with the symbols of the Four Evangelists. In Latin letters the mosaic says that the arch was decorated by order of Galla Placida, the sister of the Emperor Honorius, during the Pontificate of Pope Leo I (440-461) There also above the tomb of Saint Paul are his own words, summarizing his life, found in his Epistle to the Philippians, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).

Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, following what his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had authorized earlier, has approved a thorough scientific examination of the tomb of Saint Paul. Archeological research has shown that there is a large marble sarcophagus under the high altar with the words on it, "Saint Paul — Apostle". It was recently excavated and found covered with debris, consisting of plaster, dust, and ashes, mostly from the 1823 fire. The Pope is permitting scientists to use an endoscopic probe to examine the interior of the sarcophagus, without their opening it or disturbing the contents inside.

Ad Limina

When I was a seminarian in Rome more than a half century ago, the Basilica of Saint Paul was often a destination of my walks and a place I enjoyed visiting and where I loved to pray. Little did I suspect in those far off times that divine providence would arrange that it would also be a place where, as a Bishop, I would be required to regularly visit and pray. Church law demands that all diocesan Bishops make a visit to Rome every five years. Besides giving a detailed report on his Diocese to the Holy See, and visiting with the Bishop of Rome and with the various departments of the Holy See, the main feature of the quinquennial episcopal visit is the requirement to pray at the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This visit is called the "ad limina" visit. The Latin words literally mean "to the threshold", and they signify that all the Bishops are to pray at the threshold of the graves of those Apostles at least once every five years.

In recent times, the Basilica has been the scene of various historically important events. It was there, for instance, that on January 25, 1959, Blessed Pope John XXIII, announced his intention to convoke an ecumenical council, which became several years later the reality of the Second Vatican Council.

As was said, the visitor, sight-seeing in the large silent Basilica today, can admire the gleaming marble pavement, the graceful sweep of the arches, the gold ceiling, and the soft beauty of the old mosaics which survived the fire. However, what should change that visitor from a tourist into a pilgrim is the memory of the great saint whose body the Basilica encloses, the one who was able to tell his fellow Christians, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1), and the one who called himself, as we should all wish to be called, "Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:1).

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