As we came to the last day of our journey following Paul, we had an opportunity to visit three of the seven basilicas that are part of the pilgrimage churches in Rome.
The “Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls” has a fascinating developmental history. The grandeur and exquisite design of the basilica was a wondrous sight to behold as we approached its entrance.
This present site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, is 490 feet in length, 260 feet wide and 240 feet high. It is the second largest basilica in Rome, the first being St. Peters Basilica, and is one of the four major basilicas in this city. It is not part of the Vatican but is within the Italian territory and is managed by owner, Catholic Church.
Going back to its inception, one must return to 67 A.D., the approximate time when Paul was martyred in Rome. Tradition has it that his followers took his remains to an area approximately two miles from the place of his martyrdom (the location of the present site of the “Scala Coeli Church” in the “Tre Fontane“) and buried him in a sepulcher belonging to a Christian woman named Lucina. It was at this site, that a monument was erected called, “Cella Memoriae.” The monument remained at that site until 324 A.D. when Pope Sylvester I, under the direction of Emperor Valentinian I, erected a small church at the site of the original monument. Saint Paul’s remains were moved into a sarcophagus.
At the request of Emperor Theodosius, this church was later demolished in 386 to make room for a more beautiful and larger church with four aisles and a transept (a divided section partway up the center of the church). It was completed in 395 and consecrated in 402 by Pope Innocent I.
Sometime between 440-461, because its roof had collapsed due to fire or lightning, Leo I, Bishop of Rome, had extensive repair work done on the basilica. This made it larger than the old Saint Peters Basilica. Exquisite mosaics were completed, and he elevated the area around Paul’s tomb and made a new main altar. This was the first time an altar had been placed over Paul’s tomb. It was now largely underground.
Once again, between 590-604, the altar was modified and elevated. This new elevated altar was placed in an area where Paul’s sarcophagus had been covered by Leo I’s renovations. Paul’s sarcophagus now lay 4 1/2 feet below the altar!
The edifice remained a basilica until 937 when it became an abbey (living quarters for nuns) and later was designated as a monastery (living quarters for monks) between 1220-1241. From that point on, the basilica was designated as the Patriarchal Cathedral for the Latin Patriarchs from Alexandria who came to Rome and remained in that status up until 1964. Its stagnant operation was apparent until May 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI ordered the basilica to come under the control of a Catholic archpriest, not a Patriarch from Alexandria.
Prior to this, in 1823 while some repairmen were fixing a structure in the building, a fire was started that almost destroyed the building. It was reconstructed identical to its previous state, re-opened in 1840 and re-consecrated in 1855. Chronicles from a monastery that was attached to the basilica at the time of this repair work mentioned the findings of a marble sarcophagus with an inscription that stated: “Paulo Apostolo Mart” (translated means “to Paul the apostle and martyr”). How very exciting this must have been for the workmen. Had they discovered the sarcophagus of Paul?
“On December 6, 2000, Vatican archaeologists announced and confirmed that there truly was the presence of a white marble sarcophagus beneath the altar. Perhaps it certainly contained the remains of Paul!”
Today one of the two longer sides of the sarcophagus have been left visible beneath the surface of the altar. Through a glass partition, visitors can now observe this ancient sarcophagus!
In addition to the opportunity to view this amazing sarcophagus find, the spectacular, interior grandeur of the basilica was impressive! Gold-laden ceilings, marble floors, and colonnades expansively stretched from ceiling to floor. What an aura of splendor this provided!
When one thinks about the name of the next basilica we visited, “Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem” (Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), it would make one think we had taken a quick trip to Jerusalem! This certainly was not the case and it’s very interesting how it got its name.
When the original chapel was constructed around 320 A.D., it was reported Empress Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, had traveled to the Holy Land and brought back relics from the Calvary crucifixion site as well as having enough soil from Jerusalem brought to Rome to provide the foundation for the chapel. It was stated, “It is not dedicated to the Holy Cross, which is in Jerusalem, but the Basilica itself is ‘in Jerusalem’ in the sense that a ‘piece’ of Jerusalem was moved to Rome for its foundation.”
This chapel was built around a room in Empress Saint Helena’s Imperial Palace and was consecrated in 325 to hold the “relics of the passion of the Christ” that she had brought from Jerusalem. It is these relics that have been greatly disputed by authorities as to their authenticity. They are, however, very sacred to the Catholic followers that make pilgrimages to Rome to view these relics. Decades later this chapel was converted into a basilica.
Restoration of the basilica has seen several “facelifts:”
1. In the 8th century by Pope Gregory II
2. It was then in 1444 that Pope Lucius II created the nave to house 12 colossal marble columns that divide the basilica into three aisles. He added a brick belfry as well as a porch.
3. Between 1740-1758, Pope Benedict XIV rebuilt the façade and totally renewed the indoor space providing the present exterior look.
The third and last basilica we visited on August 14th, was the “Basilica of Saint John in Lateran.”
“This Cathedral is known as the mother and head of all churches on earth. It is the Cathedral Church of the diocese of Rome in the city of Rome and serves as the seat of the Roman pontiff (Pope).” It was given the title of Arch Basilica by Pope Sylvester I and is the highest ranking of all basilicas in the city, ranking even higher than St. John’s Basilica. Its location is 2.5 miles from Vatican City and was declared the property of the “Holy See” (jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome) by the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
It is in this cathedral that the official cathedra for the Pope (raised seat) is located and all official announcements for a world audience are made here. The cathedra is in a beautiful apse (semi-dome alcove) of the basilica and sits in singular splendor for all to view!
The original construction of the basilica, which was placed on the site of a fort that was built in 193 A.D., was begun under Pope Melchiade (311-314) and later consecrated in 324 A.D. It was dedicated to Christ the Savior and centuries later it was re-dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in the 10th century and to Saint John the Evangelist in the 12th century. The primary patron is still Christ the Savior. It was also the residence of the popes until 1309 when their residence was moved to Avigone, France. It wasn’t until 1377, under Emperor Constantine I, that the residence for the pope was moved back to Rome. At that time, the Pope’s Palace in the Vatican was built adjacent to Saint Peters Basilica. It has been the residence for all popes since that time.
Much reconstruction and repair has been completed on the Lateran Basilica since its original consecration in 324 due to calamity after calamity!
1. Pillaging by the Visigoths in 410 and again by the Vandals in 455.
2. An earthquake in 896 caused the central aisle to collapse and it was rebuilt between 904-911.
3. A fire in 1308 and another in 1361 required Pope Gregory XI to have additional repair work completed between 1370-1378.
4. It was under Pope Sixtus V (1585 to 1590) that the original Lateran Palace Basilica was demolished and replaced with a new edifice.
5. Between 1644-1655, Pope Innocent X had 12 niches equally spaced with huge arches supported by pillars in the middle aisle.
6. “Sculptures of Apostles” were finished in 1718.
7. A new simple facade was ordered by Pope Clement XII in 1731 — it was completed in 1735.
Stepping inside the richly decorated interior of the basilica, one is intrigued with all the gold, marble, and grandeur of its pipe organ.
The five naves and numerous chapels include lavishly gold-laden altars and exquisite paintings of beauty!
The Basilica of Saint John in Lateran was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It is the oldest church in Rome as well as being the oldest basilica in the world. Its dimensions are: 460 feet long, 240 feet wide and 213 feet high. The construction is of marble granite and cement.
To have had the opportunity to see the basilicas we visited in Rome and to have realized the dedication and financial sacrifice it took to build these large edifices to the Glory of God, was indeed awe-inspiring! It is heart-breaking, on the other hand, to realize that so few people are attending and worshiping Christ in these magnificent churches today! Our guide told us that only about 5 percent of the population in Rome attend church today!
How very sad this would make Paul today who prioritized his commitment to Christ and who encouraged all of us to be fully engaged in a Christ-like life.
In second Corinthians 2:14 he encourages us to “Tell others about the Lord and spread the Good News like sweet perfume.” Likewise, in Romans 1:16, he tells us “To not be ashamed of the Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes ...” Are you following Paul’s encouragement in Acts 20:24 and “Telling others the Good News about God’s wonderful kindness and love (grace)?”
May these past months of vicariously traveling with Christ Community Church’s group that followed part of the Apostle Paul’s second and third missionary journeys, have brought you new insight, dedication, and re-commitment to better serve your Lord! To God be the glory; Amen!