“As a dedication to the person and martyrdom of Paul, it is one of the four patriarchal basilicas to be visited on one’s spiritual pilgrimage to Rome.” Giana D’Avanzo
“Upon entering the portico of St. Paul’s outside the walls, the pilgrim encounters a vision of paradise in the center garden. The grand statue of the apostle in the center reminds the traveler that it was Paul’s courageous teaching that led to Christianity’s firm hold within the city of Rome.” Alexandra Lawrence
Recently, our New Testament in the Eternal City class visited the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. This basilica, built over the tomb of the apostle Paul, enshrines the witness of martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. As the patristic writer Tertullian stated, “…the apostles poured forth their whole teaching, along with their blood into the Church of Rome…” Like St. Peter, the apostle Paul culminates his ministry of the Word with the spiritual victory of winning the crown of martyrdom. As he states in II Timothy, “… the time for my departure is near, even now my life is being poured out as an offering. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and now what awaits me is a crown of glory that will never fade, life on high in Christ Jesus..” (4:6-8)
Although St. Paul’s martyrdom, like St. Peter’s, is not mentioned in the New Testament, the evidence of Patristic writers testifies to his execution outside of the walls of Rome on the road leading to the port city of Ostia. St. Paul was beheaded and his body was buried, according to tradition, by a pious Roman matron named Lucina, in a nearby pagan cemetery. Today the magnificent basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls stands over the site of his grave.
St. Paul’s tomb is below the altar, behind a grill, where a small red light burns constantly. If peered at through the grill, it is possible to see the marble cover of the sarcophagus with the inscription: “To Paul, Apostle and Martyr”. The cover has holes, made for direct contact with the inside of the tomb. Through these holes, in ancient times, pilgrims were able to lower down objects to touch the sarcophagus of the Apostle. And these pieces of cloth became prized relics for the ancient pilgrims.
After our visit, as usual, the students wrote papers connecting our lectures on St. Paul and his apostleship to the Gentiles with the art and architecture of the basilica. In this way, they are being trained to “read” a church and its artistic program from a theological and biblical point of view.
“The cross is depicted on the central bronze doors of the Basilica. In this depiction, the names of the four evangelists and the images of the twelve apostles are represented and acanthus leaf wraps around the entire cross. The acanthus leaf historically represents eternal life and by interweaving it with the cross, apostles, and evangelists, it stresses how the cross is the key to absolute salvation.” Tony Ravosa
“Above the columns of the naves run a row of Papal portraits. Popes are the successors of St. Peter and St. Paul, which makes it interesting to see these portraits, because the Pope labours to free the message of Jesus from any cultural restraints or encumbrances, as St. Paul did.” Rachel Reilly
“All along the sides of the church are statues of the apostles in niches and all around the church are portraits of the popes. This is fitting because, as successor of St. Peter and St. Paul, the bishop of Rome is to continue the ministry of St. Paul in an ardent zeal for the promotion of the good news of Christ.” Colleen O’Connell
“… the major mosaic of Jesus is the largest and most serious, portraying him as a judge. Jesus looks stern because the image represents him during the second coming. Christ is holding a shepherd’s staff, further highlighting his role as judge during the Parousia.” Jordyn D’Esposito