This is the year of St. Paul, and so one of the most visited churches of Rome is also one of the most beautiful: the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Like so many other churches, it was founded by the master-builder (or financier) Emperor Constantine about the year 315. Paul was martyred outside the walls of the City of Rome at a place called Tre Fontane, probably on June 29, in the year 65, perhaps the first anniversary of St. Peter’s crucifixion. Christians buried him in a quiet place about two miles away, and visited to pray. Constantine was running low on bricks, apparently, because the  first church was tiny. In 386 it was demolished and today’s basilica begun. This vast and towering space looks much the same today as it did in the fourth century.

The centuries have not been kind to ancient Rome, but until the early 1800’s, St. Paul Outside the Walls survived beautifully, perhaps because it has been assigned for nearly a thousand years to Benedictine monks. It was therefore a vibrant place of daily prayer even through the centuries when Rome was a poor and nearly abandoned city. In 1823 a great fire resulted from a botched repair job to lead on the roof, and St. Paul’s was destroyed. It is said that the whole world contributed to its restoration. Even the Russian czar and the viceroy of Egypt gave alabaster, malachite, and lapis lazuli for the pillars and the tabernacle. Several of the precious mosaics were able to be restored, bringing the ancient basilica back to life. One of the great treasures of the basilica is a set of prison chains, said to have been worn by the Apostle in the last days before his martyrdom. Unlike other Roman churches, St. Paul’s stands in a garden-like suburban neighborhood, surrounded by stately palm trees, gardens, and parks.

Rev. James Field

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