As the commemorative feast of the dedication of the arch-basilica of the Lateran is kept by the whole Western church, so also is that of the other greater patriarchal basilicas at Rome, St Mary Major on August 5, and St Peter’s and St Paul’s together on this day, November 18th.
Amongst all the places which the blood of martyrs has rendered illustrious, that part of the Vatican Hill which was consecrated with the blood and enriched with the relics of the Prince of the Apostles has always been the most venerable.
“The sepulchers of those who have served Christ crucified”, says St John Chrysostom, “surpass the palaces of kings ; not so much in the greatness and beauty of the buildings (though in this also they go beyond them) as in other things of more importance, such as the multitude of those who with devotion and joy repair to them. For the emperor himself, clothed in purple, goes to the tombs of the saints and kisses them ; humbly prostrate on the ground he beseeches the same saints to pray to God for him ; and he who wears a royal crown looks on it as a great privilege from God that a tentmaker and a fisherman, and these dead, should be his protectors and defenders, and for this he begs with great earnestness.”
The martyrdom of St Peter took place according to tradition at the circus of Caligula in Nero’s gardens on the Vatican Hill, and he was buried nearby. It is held by some that in the year 258, to avoid desecration during the persecution of Valerian, the relics of St Peter, together with those of St Paul were translated for a time to the obscure catacomb now called St Sebastian’s ; but they came back to their original resting-place, and in 323 the Emperor Constantine began the building of the basilica of St Peter over the tomb of the Apostle.
For nearly twelve hundred years this magnificent church remained substantially the same, a great papal establishment gradually growing up between it and the Vatican Hill. This was made the permanent residence of the popes on their return from the exile at Avignon, and by the middle of the fifteenth century the old church was found to be inadequate.
In 1506 Pope Julius II inaugurated a new building designed by Bramante, whose erection was carried on over a period of a hundred and twenty years, undergoing many alterations, additions and modifications at the hands of various popes and architects, especially Paul V and Michelangelo.
The new basilica of St Peter, as we see it today, was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on November 18, 1626, the day of its original dedication. The high altar was set up over the Apostle’s resting-place, which until 1942 had been inaccessible for many centuries. Though St Peter’s must always yield in dignity to the cathedral of St John Lateran, it has nevertheless for long been the most important church of the world, both in fact and in the hearts of Catholic Christians.
The martyrdom of St Paul took place some seven miles from that of St Peter at Aquae Salviae (now called Tre Fontane) on the Ostian Way. He was buried about two miles therefrom, on the property of a lady named Lucina, in a small vault.
Early in the third century, according to Eusebius (Hist. eccl., ii, 25, 7), a Roman priest, Caius, refers to the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul : ” I can show you the trophies [tombs] of the apostles. If you go to the Vatican or on the road to Ostia you will see the trophies of those who founded this church.”
Constantine is said to have begun a basilica here too, but the great church of St Paul Outside-the-Walls was principally the work of the Emperor Theodosius I and Pope St Leo the Great. It remained in its primitive beauty and simplicity till the year 1823, when it was consumed by fire.
The whole world contributed to its restoration, non-Christians as well as non-Catholics sending gifts and contributions. During the course of the work the fourth-century tomb was found, with the inscription PAULO APOST MART : To Paul, apostle and martyr ; it was not opened.
The new basilica, on the lines of the old one, was consecrated by Pope Pius IX on December 10, 1854, but the annual commemoration was appointed for this day, as the Roman Martyrology records.
“We do not”, says St Augustine, “build churches or appoint priesthoods, sacred rites and sacrifices to the martyrs, because, not the martyrs, but the God of the martyrs, is our God. Who among the faithful ever heard a priest, standing at the altar set up over the body of a martyr to the honour and worship of God, say in praying : We offer up sacrifices to thee, Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian ? We do not build churches to martyrs as to gods, but as memorials to men departed this life, whose souls live with God. Nor do we make altars to sacrifice on them to the martyrs, but to their God and our God.”