|A Virtual Pilgrimage|
ABOUT THE BASILICA
The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls has been through many changes through the centuries. According to tradition, Paul was martyred by beheading at Aquae Salviae and his remains were buried at a common cemetery along the Via Ostiensis, outside the city walls. Immediately, his burial-place became a place of pilgrimage for Christians. According to tradition, the first church was built over Paul’s tomb by Pope Sylvester I during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, in the year 324. This small building was enlarged between 384 and 386, and took the form of a grand Roman basilica, with five naves, 80 columns, and a four-sided portico.
Over the centuries, the building was substantially altered and adapted, with major renovations in the 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 14th, 16th, and 18th centuries! Then, on the night of 15-6 July, 1823, the great basilica was almost destroyed by fire. Pope Leo XII called on all the bishops in the world to support the rebuilding effort, which began almost immediately and continued into the twentieth century. The architects and artists of the time attempted to restore the building to something resembling the “original” Constantinian basilica. While what we see today is largely a 19th-century building, it has been called “a vivid example of reconstructed authenticity,” and of all the major basilicas in Rome (the others are St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran) St. Paul outside the Walls most resembles the kind of church the Christians of the 4th-10th centuries would have experienced.
We approach the basilica through a four-sided portico, built between 1890 and 1928.
In the center, a dramatic image of St. Paul by Giuseppe Obici (1817-1878) confronts us, his gaze bent on all who enter the basilica. The vividly-colored mosaics on the upper part of the façade depict four prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
Above them we see an image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. From where the Lamb is seated four rivers flow—symbolizing the four Gospels—and twelve lambs drink from these streams, representing the twelve Apostles. On the pediment above, we see Christ in majesty, his hand raised in blessing, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. These beautiful mosaics date from the 19th-century, and are based on mosaics placed here in the 10th-century. The whole façade is crowned by a cross, bearing the inscription “spes unica”—our only hope. As St. Paul said, “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). Pilgrims pass into the Basilica through the central bronze doors by Antonio Maraini (1931), depicting scenes from the life of St. Paul in bronze.
STAGE 2. IN THE NAVE
The nave of the Basilica is vast and impressive, lined on each side with twenty granite columns.
Above the columns, both in the aisles and in the central nave, are
medallions depicting all the Popes, from Saint Peter to Pope Benedict
XVI. These mosaic portraits were begun by Pope Pius IX in 1847.
Each portrait is distinct, and together they form a powerful reminder of
the unbroken tradition of faith, reaching back to the apostles.
Recent excavations have confirmed the presence of the saint’s tomb, part of an extensive cemetery from ancient Roman times, beneath the high altar. Here, pilgrims can venerate the relics of St. Paul, as well as the chains with which he was bound while a prisoner in Rome.
Above the altar and the tomb rises a magnificent canopy. It is the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, and dates from 1282 (it suffered minimal damage in the 1823 fire). The porphyry columns support a graceful Gothic canopy, decorated with statues of various saints, including Saint Paul, and the donor, Abbot Bartholomew, head of the ancient Benedictine monastery which adjoins the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls (Benedictine monks work and pray at the Basilica to this day).
Near the altar is the ancient Paschal candle stand, which dates from the twelfth century, and which depicts scenes from the Easter liturgy and the Passion of Christ in wonderfully detailed carving.
Prayer: As pilgrims gaze on the chains of Paul, they pray that they may be more closely linked to Christ. Kneeling before St. Paul’s tomb, they ask his intercession for themselves and for all in need.
The apse mosaics date from the 13th-century, and though severely damaged by fire, were carefully restored in 1836. They feature traditional iconography of Christ, enthroned in glory, flanked by Peter and Andrew on one side, and Paul and Luke on the other.
Prayer: In the apse, pilgrims from many nations come to
make their confession, a traditional part of a Jubilee year observance.
We conclude our virtual pilgrimage in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, located to the left as you face the main altar. It was built to celebrate the 1625 Jubilee.
The crucifix is much older, dating from the 1300’s. It is said
that as St. Bridget knelt here in prayer, Christ turned his head to look
at her. Also in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a wooden statue of
St. Paul, worn away by the devotion of pilgrims, who for centuries
chipped away tiny splinters to take home as relics.
Are you interested in making the pilgrimage to Rome during the
Jubilee year--for real? Visit
www.annopaolino.org for more information.
St. James Cathedral, Seattle