Today the Church celebrates one of her oldest feasts, commemorating the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. I prayed at the tombs of these apostles during our pilgrimage to Rome in 2005.
With the body of Saint John Paul II mere feet from me, I knelt near Saint Peter’s tomb at the high altar of the dark and nearly empty Vatican Basilica. I prayed for the soul of the late Pope, and I prayed that these two great Popes would pray for me.
Peter was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Nero at the Circus Maximus. His last wish was that if he were to be crucified, that he be crucified upside down. He thought it presumptuous to die in the same manner as his Saviour.
He was buried in a nearby graveyard. Most of the Circus Maximus is underneath the Vatican now.
At the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, I knelt at Paul’s tomb. I prayed for him to give me guidance and the strength to follow where ever God would call me. I asked him to pray for my soul and the conversion of my children.
Paul was also executed during Nero’s reign. Being a Roman citizen, he was mercifully beheaded, traditionally at Aquæ Salviæ, about three miles from Rome, near to where the Basilica now stands.
After the persecutions ended, great churches were built over the tombs of the apostles, and over the centuries millions of pilgrims have prayed at these spots.
They pray for the intercession of a bluff Galilean fisherman and a balding tent maker from Tarsus, enemies who became friends and co-workers for the Truth, an unlikely pair and a reminder that God calls all of us to be saints.
Our visit to Rome in 2005 was our first real pilgrimage. And what a pilgrimage! We left for the Eternal City just days after my baptism and confirmation. The medievalist in me thinks that part of the trip’s purpose was to pay homage to Christ’s Vicar, now that I had joined Christ’s Church.
Of course, Saint John Paul II died a day or so after our arrival, and we left before the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
We went to Rome to see the Pope, and we certainly did that, but in an entirely unexpected and marvelously moving way.
That God, He’s very tricky!