The two great saints celebrated with vigil today and with festival Monday are the “Founding Fathers” of the Church of Rome, even though Paul did not actually establish the original community, and it is likely that Peter didn’t either. But their reputations and their martyrdoms guaranteed their honor. I would like to offer just a few “tidbits” to mark their special day.
Every several years (once, it was every 5 years) bishops were expected to make what was called an ad limina visit—for many folks, this meant meeting with the pope and the officials of the Curia. But the original meaning was to make pilgrimage to the shrines of Peter and Paul, in their churches on Vatican Hill and the Via Ostia. The meetings were an add-on; important on their own terms, of course, but not the essence of the visit.
Excavations underneath St Peter’s discovered a 1st-3rd century necropolis (“city of the dead”) and the tomb of St Peter himself. Were his bones also found? Let’s just say that this is a hot-button question. More recently, and especially during the papacy of Benedict XVI, investigations underneath St Paul’s Outside the Walls uncovered a similar gravesite. We have tangible evidence of these men’s presence in Rome (to say nothing of all the documentary evidence and the complete lack of any other claims on their relics by any other churches).
Peter and Paul had a stormy relationship. They seemed to be rivals in evangelizing, even though Acts 15 suggested they parted from the “Council of Jerusalem” as friends. Galatians 2 tells a different story, with their confrontation in Antioch (which I believe was the real reason for the splitting up of Paul and Barnabas, prior to the 2nd Missionary Journey at the end of Acts 15). Yet in I Corinthians 1, while commenting on the divisions of that community (which Paul founded), he admits that one of the factions celebrated being identified with Cephas (Peter). It’s also worth noting that the discussion in I Corinthians 8 Paul states his desire not to give scandal by his behavior about eating—the very issue Peter was promoting in Antioch (when Paul got upset). So there must have been a serious reconciliation between the two.
They both find themselves in Rome in the 60s of the Christian Era—Paul to stand trial in the court of Caesar; Peter, we don’t know why, or even when he actually arrived. But they were caught up in the persecution of Nero after the Great Fire (which he probably had set; he confiscated that area of the city to build his “Golden House”). Legends abound—it’s hard to know if there is a grain of truth in some of them. Was Peter crucified upside down? Did he really flee from Rome down the Via Appia, encounter Christ, and return to embrace his fate? Did Paul’s head really bounce 3 times when he was decapitated? Great stories attach themselves to great personalities—their arrests and deaths surely, if nothing else, indicate their importance, at the end, to the Roman Christian community.
Neither of these two great basilicas was built, originally, as a church. They were halls acting as memorials on the sites of the burials. Eucharist would have been celebrated there on special occasions with portable altars, until the current high altars in both were built. Even now, there are no permanent pews or seats in these churches.
Why are they so far away from the centro storico, the City Center? If Piazza Venezia is the actual center of Rome, it’s a long walk to St Peter’s, and a far longer walk to St Paul’s. The reason is that these buildings marked the sites of graves, and the graves were originally in ordinary cemeteries, and cemeteries by law had to be outside the city limits. St Peter’s, on Vatican Hill, was “across the Tiber,” and not part of Rome proper; the name of the other church, St Paul’s Outside the Walls” tells the same story.
Let’s rejoice with Peter and Paul. Let’s rejoice in shared enthusiasm for Jesus and the Gospel. Let’s rejoice in reconciliation and shared witness. Let’s just rejoice.