O happy Rome!
We have had a host of wonderful feasts over the past few weeks: Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the Sacred Heart, and this coming Wednesday we celebrate the Solemnity of the two Princes of the Apostles – Saints Peter and Paul, both martyred in Rome around 64 AD. Peter and Paul converted Rome to the Catholic Faith which would eventually lead to the conquering of the entire Roman Empire.
St Peter was the first Pope. Our Lord had changed his name from Simon to Peter which means ‘rock’. Then Our Lord promised the primacy to Peter when He said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church” (Matthew 16:18). It is interesting to note that whenever Peter is charged by Our Lord of being the chief shepherd of the flock, it always happens near Roman locations. Our Lord’s promise of the primacy to Peter happened near Caeserea Philippi, where there was an enormous wall of rock, and it was a Roman city bearing the name of the emperor. Then after the Resurrection, Our Lord charged Peter to feed His sheep three times at Lake Tiberius, named after the Roman emperor of the time (John 21:15-19). It is clear Our Lord had planned from all eternity to conquer Rome for the Faith, and that the foundations of the Faith would be Peter and Paul. Peter died by being crucified upside down on the Vatican Hill. As Peter was attempting to escape from Rome, he met the risen JESUS on the Appian Way, and Peter said to Him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (Where are You going Lord?) And JESUS replied, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). And so Peter then understood that Our Lord was meaning him, that he shouldn’t run away, and that he must return to Rome to die a martyr’s death. And because Peter felt unworthy to die in the same way as the Master, they crucified him upside down. So just as the Holy City of Jerusalem had its own Calvary where Christ was crucified, so too would the city of Rome have its own Calvary, where St Peter, His Vicar on earth was crucified. He was buried nearby, and over his relics was built the great St Peter’s Basilica. Our Lord’s promise to Peter that on this rock He would build His Church was literally fulfilled by the construction of the Basilica over his grave.
St Paul was a Roman citizen and was martyred by beheading. This was very fitting since he had preached about the ‘sword of truth’ and so he died by the sword. We all know the famous story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22), but there is a second vision of Christ to Paul when Our Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you testified about Me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23:11). It is clear that Christ chose Rome to be the centre of His Church on earth. From being the centre of the pagan Roman Empire, where countless Christians had shed their blood in martyrdom, Rome became the City of God and the New Jerusalem. Tradition has it that St Peter and St Paul were martyred on the same day. “O Roma felix.” “O happy Rome”, purpled by the blood of the two Princes of the Apostles.
The city of Rome being so important to the Faith is the reason we are Roman Catholics. St Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662), who was Greek in language and culture, proudly proclaimed, “I am Roman in faith.” We too are Roman in faith. In conversation we tend to say we are Catholics, but we are really members of the one, holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Rome is the cradle and heart, as well as the capital of the Universal Church and has never officially fallen into error in her teaching regarding faith and morals. St Augustine, in the fourth century, coined the phrase, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est”, which means, when Rome has officially spoken regarding the Apostolic Faith, the matter is closed.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC