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The Catholic Defender: Dedication of the Churches of Saints Peter and Paul

St. Peter’s is probably the most famous church in Christendom.

Massive in scale and a veritable

museum of art and architecture,

it began on a much humbler scale.

Vatican Hill was a simple cemetery where believers gathered at Saint Peter’s tomb to pray. In 319, Constantine built a basilica on the site that stood for more than a thousand years until, despite numerous restorations, it threatened to collapse. In 1506,

Pope Julius II ordered it razed and reconstructed, but the new basilica was not completed and dedicated for more than two centuries.

St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls stands near the Abaazia delle Tre Fontane, where Saint Paul is believed to have been beheaded. The largest church in Rome until St. Peter’s was rebuilt, the basilica also rises over the traditional site of its namesake’s grave. The most recent edifice was constructed after a fire in 1823. The first basilica was also Constantine’s doing.

Constantine’s building projects enticed the first of a

centuries-long parade

of pilgrims to Rome.

From the time the basilicas were first built until the empire crumbled under “barbarian” invasions,

the two churches, although miles apart, were linked by a roofed colonnade of marble columns.

Saint Peter’s Basilica was originally built in 323 by the emperor Constantine.

The basilica was constructed over the tomb of Peter the Apostle, the Church’s first Pope. After standing for more than a thousand years, Pope Julius II ordered the building to be torn down due to structural concerns. The construction of the new church spanned over 200 years before its completion. It was dedicated on Nov. 18, 1626. It is considered the most famous church in Christendom.

Saint Paul´s Basilica is located outside the original walls of Rome. It was also originally built by the emperor Constantine though it was destroyed by fire in 1823. Donations from around the world made the reconstruction possible. Before the completion of Saint Peter´s Basilica, St Paul's was the largest church in Rome. The Basilica was built over St. Paul´s grave. Pope Pius IX consecrated the Basilica in 1854.

These two churches continue to draw millions of faithful pilgrims each year as well as many visitors from other faiths .

The barque of Peter is tethered to two stout anchors

A cathedral is theology in stone, the medievals said, a truism which extends to all churches, not just cathedrals, and to their sacred web of translucent glass, glowing marble, gold-encrusted wood, bronze canopies, and every other noble surface on which the eye falls. A Church mutely confesses its belief through form and materials. Today’s feast commemorates the dedication of two of the most sumptuous churches in the entire world:

the Basilica of St. Peter, the oversized jewel in the small crown of Vatican City, and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, a few miles distant, beyond Rome’s ancient walls. The foundations of these two Basilicas are each sunk deep into the blood-drenched ground of first-century Christianity, though today’s impressive structures stand proxy for their long-razed originals. If strong churches reflect a strong God, these Basilicas are all muscle.

The present Basilica of St. Peter was dedicated, or consecrated, in 1626. It was under construction for more than one hundred years, was built directly over the tomb of the Apostle Peter, and considerably enlarged the footprint of the original Constantinian Basilica.

That prior fourth-century Basilica was so decrepit by the early 1500s that priests refused to say Mass at certain altars for fear that the creaky building’s sagging roofs and leaning walls would collapse at any moment. The ancient Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls was consumed by a mammoth fire in 1823.

The rebuilt Basilica was dedicated on December 10, 1854, just two days after Pope Pius IX had formally promulgated the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Basilica’s vast classical elegance is breathtaking—its marbled central nave stretches out longer than an American football field.

The two Basilicas were, for centuries, linked by a miles-long, roofed colonnade that snaked through the streets of Rome, sheltering from the sun and rain the river of pilgrims flowing from one Basilica to the next as they procured their indulgences. Rome’s two great proto-martyrs were like twins tethered by a theological umbilical cord in the womb of Mother Church.

The pope’s universal ministry was explicitly predicated upon these two martyrs. Rome’s apostolic swagger meant the Bishop of Rome’s headship was not merely symbolic but actively intervened in practical matters of church governance throughout Christendom. The pope, the indispensable Christian, was often depicted in early Christian art as a second Moses, a law-giver, who received from Christ the tablets of the New Testament for the new people of God.

At intervals of five years, every diocesan bishop in the Catholic Church is obligated to make a visit “ad limina apostolorum”—“to the threshold (of the tombs) of the apostles.” This means they pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome and personally report to Saint Peter’s successor. These visits are a prime example of the primacy of the pope, which is exercised daily in a thousand different ways, a core duty far more significant than the pope’s infallibility, which is exercised rarely.

There is no office of Saint Paul in the Church. When Paul died, his office died. Everyone who evangelizes and preaches acts as another Saint Paul. But the barque of Peter is still afloat in rough seas, pinned to the stout tombs which, like anchors, hold her fast from their submerged posts under today’s Basilicas. A church is not just a building, any more than a home is just a house. A church, like a home, is a repository of memories, a sacred venue, and a corner of rest. On today’s feast, we recall that certain churches can also be graveyards. Today’s Basilicas are sacred burial grounds, indoor cities of the dead, whose citizens will rise from beneath their smooth marble floors at the end of time, like a thousand suns dawning as one over the morning horizon.

Holy martyrs Peter and Paul, your tombs are the sacred destinations of many pilgrimages to the eternal city. May all visits to the Basilicas dedicated to your honor deepen one’s love and commitment to Mother Church.

There are four “major” or papal basilicas – all of which are in Rome. All other basilicas are called “minor” basilicas.

The Diocese of Charlotte has two minor basilicas: Mary, Help of Christians Abbey (better known as Belmont Abbey), and St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville.

The Asheville basilica states on its website:

The term dates back to the early Greek and Roman times and referred to a type of public building. In the 4th century, basilicas began to be used as places of worship. It was during this time that construction of the greatest basilicas of Rome was started.

Today, the term basilica is a special designation given by the pope to certain churches because of their antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as a place of worship.

To become a basilica, the church must have been consecrated. The liturgical rites (celebration of the Holy Eucharist, sacraments of penance and other sacraments) should also be executed in an exemplary way with fidelity to liturgical norms and the active participation of the people of God.

It should also have special significance in the diocese. St. Lawrence, with its unique dome, is the only church designed and built by the renowned Rafael Guastavino.

Because of the relationship between a basilica and the pope, basilicas have the responsibility to promote the study of the documents of the pope and the Holy See, especially those concerning the Sacred Liturgy.

Also, certain days in the liturgical year are to be celebrated with added solemnity, among them the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (Feb. 22), the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), and the anniversary of the election or coronation of the supreme pontiff.

An outward sign and privilege that comes to a basilica is the honor and opportunity to display the seal of the papacy.


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