The first of a series of reflections following a visit to Rome to discover its links with the early Christian church and the church as it is today
As an ecumenical advocate it would be hypocritical of me to censure the joy and devotion inspired in fellow Christians and others when visiting holy landmarks. A visit to the Vatican and in particular St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, however, has led me to reflect on how I would wish to express my own idea of reverence and faith.
As humans we are drawn to those places where the people who are part of our history actually walked and talked and left their mark on the landscape. As part of our veneration of their lives we erect memorials so that future generations will know the exact spot where they too might draw closer to these colossi of faith
Yet the hustle and bustle of thousands of pilgrims rushing from one grandiose monument to another without pause to look at what they are actually snapping through their camera lenses; the papal catacombs in which the human remains of the former bishops of Rome repose amidst the splendour of carved marble reliquaries; and being continuously funneled around those holy objects that offer the best ‘selfie’ opportunities, somehow left me cold and wanting to shout ‘Let’s clear the temple!’
The Lord is high above all nations and his glory above the heavens – Psalm 113:4
Yet, the visit hadn’t started like that. It had actually begun deep underground in the Roman Necropolis directly under the Basilica. Here in the ancient cemetery, originally without the city walls, the brick-built mausoleums, designed to hold the remains of Roman households spoke of reverence. Places where families might occasionally climb up onto the rooves to have a picnic whilst they remembered their departed relatives and loved ones.
Even so, we were still among the glory of the Roman empire, whose prosperity could afford to erect these monuments, whilst the poor and persecuted were buried in pauper’s graves.
Simon Peter was one such as these. After he had met his gruesome death in the Circus of Nero c64AD, his body was laid in the ground and discretely memorialised by the early Christians, many of whom chose to be buried close by. A small ‘trophy’ or physical shrine was erected to mark the grave by the theologian Gaius around the end of the 2nd century and at the beginning of the 4th century the newly converted Emperor Constantine marked the spot with a white marble sarcophagus over which the altar of the basilica was to be built. Now, as then, the open dome of the basilica provides a direct connection from the skies or heavens above, through the baroque grandeur to the simple grave of Christ’s rock and foundation of his church
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor those gone down into silence
I have to admit, that without Pope Pius XI’s desire to be buried as close as was possible to the tomb of St Peter, then these things may have remained undiscovered and maybe they should have. For Simon Peter, the simple fisherman, would surely be turning in his grave, that is if he wasn’t already in heaven, at the way that people have put all their energies into immortalising the saints in stone and precious materials whilst failing to grasp the irony of their riches.
Perhaps the latest Bishop of Rome, will continue to lead by example as he sets aside some of this pomp and ceremony and tries to live out his life and ministry close to the people he serves. I do hope and pray so, for all our sakes.