Here it is the end of June, and I’m still trying to process what I experienced in Rome in April. Because today is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, though, I thought I’d make an effort to share at least part of my trip.
Both Peter and Paul were imprisoned in Rome, and both died in Rome. There are links of chain which we still have, which tradition tells us held these men captive. Chains that held Saint Peter are at San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), and chains that held Saint Paul are at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
Saint Paul was beheaded outside the walls of the city of Rome. The Papal Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls now stands over his tomb, where you can see his sarcophagus under the altar of the basilica.
Saint Peter was crucified on Vatican Hill, upside down because he did not feel he was worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. He was buried in the same area, and our current St. Peter’s Basilica is built over this spot. Recent (in the last century) excavations have found bones of a man from his century, of his age, and of his physical stature, directly below the altar of the basilica, where for almost two millennia now tradition tells us he was buried.
There are tours given of the excavated area under the basilica to about 100 people per day, divided by language into groups of 10-12 people. If you go to Rome, book this tour, but be sure to submit your request the moment you know your travel dates. It books up months in advance, but I guarantee you it will be one of the highlights of your visit. You will see countless ancient burial sites from early Christians who were buried as close to Saint Peter as their relatives could get them. You’ll see parts of the Trophy of Gaius, the Red Wall, the altar of the old St. Peter’s Basilica, and some of the bones of the Apostle Peter.
That tour underneath St. Peter’s Basilica was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. Standing there, underground, with just a handful of people, in a burial ground of some of the earliest Christians, I felt connected to the early Church in a way that I had never felt before. For more than nineteen hundred years, people have been making pilgrimages to that spot, to pay their respects to the fisherman from Galilee, a real man who lived a real life like you and I are. A sinner, like me, even after Jesus chose him to lead the Church.
Similarly, but perhaps not as dramatically, I felt a closer connection to Saint Paul than I ever had as I stood in front of his sarcophagus at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. This was the man who was the Apostle to the Gentiles — to me. The letters he wrote make up a large portion of the New Testament of the Bible. Paul was just another real man living a real life like you and I are, called by Jesus to spread his Gospel to others.
Below are some pictures from San Pietro in Vincoli, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. I was not allowed to take photographs in the Grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica (one level below the current basilica; one level above the underground excavations) nor underground in the Scavi tour of St. Peter’s.
If you’re in Rome, go.