November 18, 2018: DEDICATION OF BASILICAS OF SS. PETER & PAUL
November 18, 2018: COMMEMORATION OF DEDICATION OF THE BASILICAS OF SS. PETER AND PAUL
“Because the world under thy conduct has risen triumphant to the very heavens, Constantine the conqueror has built this temple in thy honour.”
QUOD DUCE TE MUNDUS SURREXIT IN ASTRA TRIUMPHANS, HANC CONSTANTINUS VICTOR TIBI CONDIDIT AULAM. Because the world under thy conduct has risen triumphant to the very heavens, Constantine the conqueror has built this temple in thy honor. This inscription stood in letters of gold over the triumphal arch in the ancient Vatican Basilica. Never did the Roman genius frame a more magnificent utterance in so few words; never did the greatness of Simon Bar-Jona appear to such advantage on the seven hills. In 1506 the great arch that had looked down upon twelve centuries of prostrate pilgrims, fell from old age, and the beautiful inscription perished. But Michael Angelo’s lofty dome points out to the city and the world the spot where sleeps the Galilæan fisherman, the successor of the Cæsars, the Vicar of Christ, the ruler of the destinies of Rome.
The second glory of the eternal City is the tomb of St. Paul on the Ostian Way. Unlike that of St. Peter, which lies deep down in the Vatican crypt, this tomb is raised to the level of the floor by massive masonry, on which rests the great sarcophagus. This circumstance was ascertained in 1841, when the papal altar was reconstructed. It was evidently to obviate the consequences of inundations from the Tiber that the sarcophagus had thus been raised above the place where Lucina had first laid it. The pilgrim certainly finds nothing to blame in this arrangement when, on looking through the small opening in the center of the altar, his respectful glance falls upon the marble of the tomb, and he reads these imposing words traced in large characters of Constantine’s period: PAULO APOSTOLO ET MARTYRI. To Paul Apostle and Martyr.
In the following Lessons the Roman Church gives us her traditions concerning the two basilicas whose dedication feast we are celebrating.
Among the holy places venerated of old by the Christians, those were the most honored and most frequented in which the bodies of the Saints were preserved, or some relic or memorial of the Martyrs. Chief among these holy places has ever been that part of the Vatican hill which was called the Confession of St. Peter. Christians from all parts of the world flocked thither, as to the rock of the faith and the foundation of the Church, and honored with the greatest reverence and piety the spot hallowed by the sepulcher of the prince of the Apostles.
Hither on the octave day of his baptism, came the emperor Constantine the Great; and taking off his diadem, he prostrated on the ground with many tears. Then taking a hoe and mattock he broke up the earth, of which twelve basketfuls were taken away in honor of the twelve Apostles; and on the site thus marked out, he built the basilica of the Prince of the Apostles. Pope St. Sylvester dedicated it on the fourteenth of the Calens of December, just as he had consecrated the Lateran church on the fifth of the Ides of November. He erected in it a stone altar which he anointed with chrism, and decreed that thenceforward all altars should be made of stone. The same blessed Sylvester dedicated the basilica of St. Paul the Apostle on the Ostian Way, also magnificently built by the emperor Constantine, who enriched both basilicas with many estates and rich gifts and ornaments.
The Vatican basilica, however, began to decay through age; and was rebuilt from its foundations on a more extensive and magnificent scale, through the piety of several Pontiffs. It was solemnly dedicated by Urban VIII on this day in the year 1626. In the year 1823 the Ostian basilica was burnt to the ground; but the ruins were repaired and it was rebuilt more splendidly than before, through the unwearied exertions of four Popes. Pius IX, seizing the auspicious occasion, when his Definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the blessed Virgin Mary had drawn an immense number of Cardinals and Bishops even from distant parts of the Catholic world to Rome, solemnly dedicated this basilica on the tenth of December 1854, assisted and surrounded by this noble gathering of prelates; and he decreed that the anniversary commemoration should be celebrated on this day.
The Major Basilicas of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill, and of St. Paul Outside the Walls on the Ostian Way.
The Vatican Church, dedicated in honour of St. Peter, is the second patriarchal church at Rome, and in it reposes one half of the precious remains of the bodies of SS. Peter and Paul. The tombs of the great conquerors and lords of the world have been long since destroyed and forgotten; but those of the martyrs are glorious by the veneration which the faithful pay to their memory. Amongst all the places which the blood of martyrs has rendered illustrious, that part of the Vatican hill which was consecrated with the blood, and enriched with the relics of the prince of the apostles, has always been most venerable. “The sepulchers of those who have served Christ crucified,” says St. Chrysostom, “surpass the palaces of kings, not so much in the greatness and beauty of the buildings (though in this also they go beyond them) as in another thing of more importance, namely, in the multitude of those who, with devotion and joy, repair to them. For the emperor himself, who is clothed in purple, goes to the sepulchres of the saints, and kisses them; and, humbly prostrate on the ground, beseeches the same saints to pray to God for him; and he who wears a royal crown upon his head, holds it for a great favour of God, that a tent-maker [St. Paul] and a fisherman [St. Peter], and these dead, should be his protectors and defenders, and this he begs with great earnestness.” And St. Austin, or another ancient father, “Now at the memory of the fisherman the knees of the emperor are bowed, and the precious stones of the imperial crown shine most where the benefits of the fisherman are most felt.”
The body of St. Peter is said to have been buried immediately after his martyrdom, upon this spot, on the Vatican hill, which was then without the walls, and near the suburb inhabited by the Jews. The remains of this apostle were removed hence, into the cemetery of Calixtus, but brought back to the Vatican. Those of St. Paul were deposited on the Ostian Way, where his church now stands. The tombs of the two princes of the apostles, from the beginning, were visited by Christians with extraordinary devotion above those of other martyrs. Caius, the learned and eloquent priest of Rome, in 210, in his dialogue with Proclus, the Montanist, speaks thus of them: “I can show you the trophies of the apostles. For, whether you go to the Vatican hill, or to the Ostian road, you will meet with the monuments of them who by their preaching and miracles founded this church.” The Christians, even in the times of persecution, adorned the tombs of the martyrs, and the oratories which they erected over them, where they frequently prayed. Constantine the Great, after founding the Lateran Church, built seven other churches at Rome, and many more in other parts of Italy. The first of these were, the churches of St. Peter on the Vatican hill (where a temple of Apollo, and another of Idӕa, mother of the gods, before stood) in honour of the place where the prince of the apostles had suffered martyrdom, and was buried; and that of St. Paul, at his tomb on the Ostian road. The yearly revenues which Constantine granted to all these churches, amounted to seventeen thousand seven hundred and seventy golden pence, which is above thirteen thousand pounds sterling, counting the prices, gold for gold; but, as the value of gold and silver was then much higher than at present, the sum in our money at this day would be much greater. These churches were built by Constantine in so stately and magnificent a manner as to vie with the finest structures in the empire, as appears from the description which Eusebius gives us of the Church of Tyre; for we find that the rest were erected upon the same model, which was consequently of great antiquity. St. Peter's Church on the Vatican, being fallen to decay, it was begun to be rebuilt under Julius II, in 1506, and was dedicated by Urban VIII, in 1626, on this day; the same on which the dedication of the old church was celebrated. The precious remains of many popes, martyrs, and other saints, are deposited partly under the altars of this vast and beautiful church, and partly in a spacious subterraneous church under the other. But the richest treasure of this venerable place consists in the relics of SS. Peter and Paul, which lie in a sumptuous vault beyond the middle of the church, towards the upper end, under a magnificent altar, at which only the pope says mass, unless he commissions another to officiate there. This sacred vault is called, The confession of St. Peter, or, The threshold of the Apostles (Limina Apostolorum), to which devout persons have flocked, in pilgrimages, from the primitive ages.
Churches are dedicated only to God, though often under the patronage of some saint; that the faithful may be excited to implore, with united suffrages, the intercession of such a saint, and that churches may be distinguished by bearing different titles. “Neither do we,” says St. Austin, “erect churches, or appoint priesthoods, sacred rites, and sacrifices to the martyrs; because, not the martyrs, but the God of the martyrs, is our God. Who, among the faithful, ever heard a priest, standing at the altar which is erected over the body of a martyr to the honour and worship of God, say, in praying, We offer up sacrifices to thee, O Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian; when at their memories (or titular altars) it is offered to God, who made them both men and martyrs, and has associated them to his angels in heavenly honour.” And again, “We build not churches to martyrs as to gods, but memories as to men departed this life, whose souls live with God. Nor do we erect altars to sacrifice on them to the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, and our God.” Constantine the Great gave proofs of his piety and religion by the foundation of so many magnificent churches, in which he desired that the name of God should be glorified on earth, to the end of time.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. VI,
Edition 1903; and
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II.
Ss. Peter and Paul, pray for us.