A Message from Father Nick 58

Old fresco of St Peter’s, constructed 4th century AD

St Peter’s in Rome…1 (the first church)

“Is the pope a catholic!” We say it with a mental exclamation-mark about something too obvious to need disputing. And even in a flippant way, it still connects us with the apostle Peter. In truth no one speaks to us so much of faith as the headstrong, loving and lovable fisherman whose bones lie beneath the most easily recognized church in the world.

St Peter’s in Rome has a unique status in our minds. We often think of it as Rome’s cathedral, but that distinction belongs to the basilica of St John Lateran, “Mother and Mistress of all churches of the city and the world”, built on land given to the pope after 312 by Emperor Constantine. This is where popes lived until the end of the Middle Ages.

Constantine, however, did revere the apostles and martyrs, seeing them as Rome’s true heroes. Above all he encouraged the cult of Saints Peter and Paul (the original St Peter’s basilica was begun between 318 and 322). Because these two men both gave their lives in Rome, the city would always have first place among the Church’s ancient sees. And their joint witness would continue to be a major element in the faith of its bishop, the pope. The basilicas of Peter and Paul in Rome still remind us of the two apostles’ enduring place in the life of the Church.

St Peter’s basilica in 6th century (Roger Pearse)

Another major element of course is the utterly personal faith of Peter, a faith that must be shared by his successors. We have already seen how historical forces helped to shape the papacy as it took on new forms of responsibility. Saints like Leo the Great (d. 461) and Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) were called upon to virtually govern the Western Empire. Outstanding figures like Gregory VII (1025-85) and Innocent III (c 1160-1216) found themselves engaged in power struggles of an increasingly complex and sophisticated kind, very different from the world of Simon Peter.

Papal elections became more and more political, reflecting the interests of national groups. In 1309 Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, decamped to Avignon and for almost seventy years, seven popes (all of them French) chose to remain there. Gregory XI’s return to Rome in 1376 brought little improvement, leading to the so-called Western Schism, when two rival “popes” claimed the office of Peter. And so it went on… By 1410, three men claimed to be pope, including a dissolute character who had once been a pirate. The schism was only ended in 1417 at the Council of Constance.

Meanwhile, Rome itself had become a place of ruin and dereliction, where wolves literally roamed the streets. This was the setting in which our own St Frances of Rome lived and worked (like St Catherine of Siena, who persuaded the pope to return from Avignon, she exerted real moral influence at a time of great confusion). And now St Peter’s basilica was falling into decay – as a symbol of the situation in Rome, it seemed all too appropriate. Something would have to be done.

Old St Peter’s (courtesy of Cambridge University Press)