Today we travel outside the walls (Fuori le Mura) of Rome to visit the Basilica of Saint Paul. This is one of the four major basilicas of Rome. Now known as a papal basilica, this was known as the patriarchal basilica associated with the ancient see of Alexandria. You may recall we visited another former patriarchal basilica, San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, associated with Jerusalem, a few days ago. We visit this church today because this was the traditional site of the first scrutiny for those about to be Baptized.
Around the year AD 67, the Apostle Paul was sentenced to death. Because he was Roman, he was taken outside the walls of Rome and beheaded. A legend surrounding his execution says that when he was beheaded, his head bounced three times. Each time his head hit the ground a spring shot up. A church was built over the spot and named Tre Fontana. The saint was buried a few miles down the road and his tomb was marked by a small shrine.
Although it was illegal, many Christians came to pray at Saint Paul’s tomb. Once Christianity was legalized, the Emperor Constantine built a small church over the saint’s grave. A short time later a larger basilica was built in place of Constantine’s church. Because more and more pilgrims continued to travel to the Apostle’s tomb, the basilica was expanded in the eighth century. This expansion made Saint Paul Outside the Walls the largest church in Rome, even larger than Saint Peter’s Basilica. In the sixteenth century a new Saint Peter’s was built and it reclaimed the title of the largest church in Christendom. Saint Paul remains the second largest in Rome.
This fourth century basilica, with eighth century modifications, stood until 1823 when a careless worker left a burning pan of charcoal on the roof. The wooden ceiling beams caught fire and the church burned through the night. The night of the fire, Pope Pius VII was in his bed dying. He had recently had a dream that the Catholic Church was about to suffer a great tragedy. As this basilica was his favorite church, his aides decided it best not to tell him of the fire. He died just a few days later.
The next pope, Leo XII, ordered that the basilica be rebuilt exactly as it was before. Donations poured in from all over the world and from people of many faiths. Nearly 100 years later, the new basilica was complete. The new basilica is mostly the same size and has a similar floor plan as the original.
A unique feature about this basilica, though not uncommon in early churches, is the large atrium outside. This grand welcoming courtyard is the biggest in Rome. In the center stands a huge statue of Paul grasping a sword and clutching a book. The sword represents his instrument of martyrdom, the book, the epistles he wrote. Behind him, on the façade, is a stunning mosaic, even more beautiful at sunset. The mostly gold mosaic features Christ enthroned surrounded by Saints Peter and Paul. Below is the Lamb of God resting on the mountain of Paradise. Four rivers, representing the four Gospels, flow out of the mountain down to twelve sheep, the Apostles. In the distance are two cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Across the bottom are the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Inside the basilica, mosaic portraits of all the popes line the upper portion of the walls. Pope Benedict XVI is to the right of the main altar, and as he is the current pope, a light shines on his portrait. Some say that when space for the portraits runs out, the world will end. For the record, seven spaces remain.
The high altar is reserved for the Holy Father. Below the altar is Saint Paul’s tomb.
The Chapel of Saint Stephen reminds us that before his conversion, he took part in the stoning death of the Church’s first martyr, Stephen.
In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a crucifix said to have nodded to Saint Bridget of Sweden.
The apse mosaic, which actually survived the fire of 1823 dates back to the thirteenth century. It shows Christ with the Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke. A tiny little Pope Honorius III, who commissioned the work, is at the foot of Christ. Angels, Apostles and other saints line the bottom of the mosaic. Together they are singing the Gloria, we know this because of the scrolls they hold.