St. Paul’s Basilica: monument to a church of evangelization

| Francis X. Rocca | April 22, 2013 | 0 Comments
CNS photo/Paul Haring

CNS photo/Paul Haring

In a short speech just a few days before the conclave that elected him pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio told his fellow cardinals that the next pontiff “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the church to go out to the existential peripheries, helps her to be the fruitful mother who gains life from ‘the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.'”

The church should not live “within herself, of herself, for herself,” the future Pope Francis said. Rather, its evangelization should extend “to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

In light of those remarks, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where Pope Francis was scheduled to celebrate Mass April 14, holds special significance for his pontificate.

The Apostle Paul, whose tomb lies under the basilica’s main altar, brought the Gospel to peoples across the central and eastern Mediterranean, and even more consequentially, translated the Christian faith into the philosophical terms of ancient Greco-Roman culture. The so-called “Apostle to the Gentiles” thus exemplifies the missionary spirit invoked by the new pope.

St. Paul also embodies the charismatic (or prophetic) side of the church, in much the way that his fellow patron of Rome, St. Peter, the first pope, stands for the church’s hierarchical (or institutional) dimension. As the first member of a religious order to be elected pope in nearly two centuries, Pope Francis is in a sense a successor to both apostles, since the charismatic side of the church has traditionally been the particular domain of religious life.

St. Paul’s is today the only one of Rome’s four major papal basilicas entrusted to the care of a religious order. Benedictine monks have resided there since the time of Pope Gregory I (590-604), who was himself a former monk, and one of the legacies of that tradition is the basilica’s extensive library, whose collection includes some 10,000 volumes dating from before the 18th century.

The dynamic evangelizing spirit of its patron saint made the basilica a fitting site for the January 25, 1959, announcement by Blessed John XXIII that he would call an ecumenical council known to history as Vatican II.

The basilica’s current role as a center of ecumenism draws inspiration from St. Paul, who did so much to bind the early church together. A chapel is set aside for worship by non-Catholic Christians, and the pope leads an ecumenical service in the basilica every year at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

St. Paul’s stands as a monument to that hoped-for unity, since the basilica was destroyed by fire in 1823, then rebuilt with contributions from Catholics and others around the world, including the Orthodox Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who gave blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli. Help also came from non-Christians, notably Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, who donated alabaster columns.

For pilgrims and other visitors today, one of the basilica’s most noteworthy features is the series of mosaic medallion portraits of all the popes up through Pope Benedict XVI. A popular legend holds that the apocalypse will come once the number of popes exhausts the available spaces for portraits. Yet the story of the basilica’s rebuilding is a reminder that the Catholic Church’s power of endurance and growth is greater than any physical construction.

Book on church architecture much more than pretty pictures

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Category: Arts and Culture