8: Rome’s loveliest basilica
When St Peter left the lands of his birth for the city of his death, he departed by boat from Jaffa, which today is a suburb of Tel Aviv. Our group of 45 left for Rome from Tel Aviv albeit by plane and via a detour over Cairo.
Straight from Fiumicino airport our new guide, the knowledgeable and obliging Laura Bollati, took us to the basilica of St Pauls Outside the Walls, the first of the four major basilicas we would visit appropriately so, since this was also the first (other than St Peters, of course) that Pope Benedict visited after his pontifical election.
Many people say this basilica is the loveliest of the four. One can see why: St Peters is imposing, St John Lateran extravagantly magnificent, and St Mary Major inspiring but St Pauls has an elegant beauty and an air of pastoral calm, an atmosphere complemented by the adjacent 13th century cloister with its charming garden, and aided by the relative deficit in the hordes of tourists that make a visit to St Peters so stressful.
The basilica is built over the reputed tomb of St Paul. Indeed, an Italian archaeologist reported last year having located the sarcophagus holding the relics of the Apostle of the Gentiles under the main altar (which during our visit sported a decidedly unliturgical artifact: an unattended vacuum cleaner). The archaelogical find ties in with the tradition that Paul was buried in a cemetery on the Via Ostiense (outside Romes walls) after his beheading. One may presume that before this, Romes Christian community had kept alive the memory of Pauls final resting place; indeed a cella memori, or memorial shrine, marked the spot in as early as 200. By 324 after Constantines conversion that emancipated Christianity the first basilica was consecrated over Pauls tomb. That structure was shortlived: in 395 a new basilica was completed.
The basilica named in Italian basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura was remodelled and renovated several times over the next 1500 years. Then a devastating fire destroyed it completely in July 1823. The basilica was rebuilt in a painstaking project to largely resemble the 390 church. Remarkably, it is the youngest of Romes four major basilicas, but architecturally the oldest.
We had Mass in the Blessed Sacrament chapel which accommodates the 14th century crucifix that reputedly spoke (or nodded, the accounts vary) to the formidable St Bridget in 1370. It also houses a mosaic of Our Lady from the 13th century before which St Ignatius of Loyola and his Jesuit companions made their first public vows.
During our time in the Holy Land, we breathed the air of Jesus; now in Rome we imbibed the history of the Church and the saints and, this being Rome, of the popes. All the popes, from St Peter to Benedict XVI, are depicted in mosaics high up along the basilicas nave. In a way, it is noteworthy that all the popes should be depicted. While a big majority of them certainly were of unimpeachable character, a few were of such a dubious temperament as to render the address Holy Father an ironic statement, and a few others were simply depraved.
It isnt really fair to single out the bad popes instead of the saints among the popes, but for the purpose of argument, let us briefly consider the deplorable career of a few.
Pope Stephen VI (896-897) was a strange fish. He dug up the corpse of his predecessor but one, Formosus, had him dressed up in papal regalia and stand accused in a show trial, which naturally found him guilty (Formosus presumably was not asked to plead).
Then there was John XII (955-963), who as the beneficiary of old-fashioned nepotism became pope at the age of 18. He proceeded to turn the basilica of St John Lateran into a brothel (oh yes, he did), and was accused of a range of sexual offences, murder, paganism and other misdeeds. He also ordained a ten-year-old bishop, which might represent some sort of record. Political intrigue removed this miscreant from the throne of Peter; he is said to have met a grisly end at the hands of a jealous husband.
Removing a pope proved slightly more difficult in the case of Pope Benedict IX, who occupied the pontifical office no fewer than three times between 1032 and 1048, and of whom his contemporary Pope Victor III said: His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it. St Peter Damian described the pop-up pontiff as a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.
And we have not even touched on Alexander VI, the reprehensible Borgia pope who certainly was not alone among the renaissance pontiffs in exhibiting a lively contempt for clerical celibacy (Julius II, who commissioned the rebuilding of St Peters basilica, was a not only a ruthless political operator, but also the father of three illegitimate children).
Still, all of them are included in the all-popes gallery. This, surely, is not because the Church regards their likes as being above indictment, but because they form part of its not always unblemished history. The portraits of objectionable popes must not be seen as an enticement to veneration, but as a historical record which documents that even under the leadership of such rotten men the Church defied extinction, through the grace and the will of God. This knowledge should strengthen, not undermine, our loyalty to the office of the pope.