St. Paul Outside the Walls: a Church With a Storyby Victor Hoagland, C.P.
Statue in front of St. Paul Outside the Walls Basilica in Rome
Like all the old churches of Rome, St. Paul Outside the Walls is a storyteller with a story to tell. Our eyes, not our ears, must see it, however, for how else do churches like this speak to visitors from all over the world except visually through pictures and statues and space?
St. Paul himself welcomes us in the statue outside the church’s entrance. He is an old man, clothed in a heavy traveler’s cloak, bent and tired from coming a long way. Yet, the apostle holds a great sword firmly in hand, not a military weapon though, but a symbol of the faith that won hearts and banished the powers of darkness.
He has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith,” and here in Rome his earthly journey ended. Pictures on the church doors recall Paul’s final hours, when he died decapitated by an executioner’s sword not far from this spot.
Lifting our eyes to the façade of the church, we see Paul’s dramatic journey in outline, from Jerusalem to Rome, as he carried the gospel of Jesus Christ announced beforehand by prophets of the Old Testament. A more detailed description of his mission appears in the paintings around the church walls within, from his conversion on the way to Damascus, to his death here in the capital of the Roman world.
If we look higher before we go in, Paul appears on the church’s façade in the light of glory, his traveling days done. With Peter, a fellow disciple, he sits at the feet of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord who taught him so well. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul once cried, thrown to the ground. Now he sees Jesus face to face.
This same scene of glory is repeated within the church itself where columns lead our eyes in procession to a triumphal arch defining the apostle’s grave below and the altar above it. On the dome of the apse, Jesus sits in triumph, surrounded by Paul and his companion apostles and evangelists. “Come, blessed of my father, receive the kingdom prepared for you,” Jesus proclaims in the book of life he holds up to them.
Visiting the church today, we may also see archeologists are at work at the apostle’s tomb under the main altar investigating for evidence that his remains lie there.
Outside the Walls
The description “Outside the Walls” is a reminder that this church, now nestled in a crowded city suburb, was once outside Rome’s city walls on a desolate stretch of the Via Ostia, part of a little cemetery where the apostle was first buried. As they did over St.Peter’s grave, early Christians built a modest memorial immediately after Paul’s death to mark his grave; then in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine erected a small church facing the Via Ostia to memorialize the apostle.
It did not end there, however. Later that same century, a larger church replaced the small church, as large as that of St.Peter on the Vatican. Why build an immense building like this in an out-of-the-way place, we may ask? Was it devotion or Christian pride that prompted royal donors or pious devotees to undertake so expensive a project?
Apostle to the Gentiles
Perhaps. Yet, some speculate there were other reasons behind the honors paid to the apostle. In the late 4th century, hordes of “barbarians” were pouring through the frontiers of the empire, and the Romans — most likely Christians among them — saw the newcomers as pesky strangers: violent, crude and uncultured. The latin word they used to describe them, “barbari,” dismisses them as little less than savages, unwelcome intruders into an orderly Roman world.
St. Paul once scolded the proud Corinthians for looking down on others and forgetting that God had raised them up from nothing by his grace. “The door to faith has opened to the nations,” he said; God’s welcome extends to all, no matter who they are. What would he say about the Roman attitude toward these new immigrants?
Did the great new church signify a call to Roman Christians to be open-hearted to these new gentiles, as the apostle, who along with Peter, another founder of their church, surely would have done? Early popes like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were among this church’s best benefactors, ensuring the apostle’s memory be kept alive, despite earthquakes, fires and invading armies. Under Gregory, the Roman Church not only welcomed the newcomers to the Italian peninsula, but in the spirit of Paul reached beyond the old borders of the empire to the misty shores of England and dark forests of Northern Europe.
The Catholic Church was meant to reach out to the world
Besides new peoples, the Roman church of the 4th century was challenged by a considerable number of Romans who rejected Christianity altogether. Not all followed the Emperor Constantine in accepting the claims of the new religion. Many educated Romans especially, schooled in the wisdom of the philosophers and the traditional religion, looked down on Christians as a group having no intellectual tradition and not much better than the barbarians they felt were destroying the empire.
Paul the Apostle once engaged the philosophers of Athens and fearlessly argued the claims of Christ in city after city. How would he engage them? Well-educated Roman Christians, growing more numerous now in Rome, must have taken the challenge of Paul’s example. What words and wisdom could they bring to the public square? Scholars like St. Jerome, the great Christian classicist, came to their aid with a storehouse of elegant translations of the bible and of authors like the Greek theologian Origen and the Christian historian Eusebius. From Roman Africa, St. Augustine began to write and speak to the Roman world beyond his own local church. A struggle for the Roman mind had begun.
Do stories from an old church like St. Paul Outside the Walls resonate with us today? Does the apostle remind us too of our call to be a missionary church reaching out to all and ready to proclaim our faith in the public square?
Following his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI visited St. Paul Outside the Walls the day after his coronation at St. Peter’s in Vatican City on April 24, 2005. He was only recognizing, as his predecessors had done, that the church of Rome was founded by two disciples of Jesus, Peter and Paul.
They complement each other. Paul, a complex intellectual, forging beyond the boundaries of Judaism, wanted to address the whole world. Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was a cautious captain for the ship of the church. Their gifts are different, but we gain from both of them. Paul’s sword points to an unknown future and tells us not to be afraid to embrace it. Peter, holding firmly the keys given him by Jesus, calls us to stay close to the Good Shepherd, whose wisdom and love supports us.
The Church treasures their different gifts.
Fr. Victor Hoagland C.P. served as editor of Compassion from 1998-2008. The author of many books, he has also written and produced the DVD “The Pilgrim Churches of Rome” issued in 2005.