Wednesday, June 3, 2015

St. Peter and the Founding of the Church at Rome

Reading N°18 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Saints Peter and Paul
El Greco (1541-1614)
While the hierarchical organization, the Christian life, and the symbol of faith were developing at Jerusalem and Antioch and in the Christian communities dependent upon those two centers, the Apostles and the missioners, under the direction of Peter and Paul, were widening the field of evangelical conquests. Peter, though continuing to watch over the Christian communities of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia Minor, Bithynia, and Mesopotamia, founded the Church of Rome. Paul, after a journey across Asia Minor, also entered Europe and preached the glad tidings at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth.

Of this new spread of Christianity and of all the expansion which followed, Rome was the center and remained such ever after: the capital of Greco-Roman civilization became the capital of the Christian world.

Christianity appeared to the earthly-minded and carnal Jewish world as a scandal; to the haughty and pleasure-loving pagan world it seemed foolish.[1] True, just when Peter was entering Rome, when Paul was addressing the Athenians on the Areopagus, the old pagan religion of Greece and Rome appeared to have received its death-blow. The Empire, under its protective administration, leveled the races it conquered; and at the same time deprived the old official cults, which incarnated the soul of the city and the State, of their chief strength. Pagan philosophy was popularized, and thus lost its prestige. Confidence in Plato was weakened no less than faith in Pallas Athene. In the great and woeful void produced about men's souls, from the Mediterranean shores to the Black Sea, a kind of religious ferment set in. The phrase "weariness of living" (taedium vitae) passed with Ulpian into the stern language of Roman law.[2]

The Roman Isis
Unfortunately, the place left vacant by the old traditional paganism was already taken. The ancient mystical cults of Hellas rose up again. From Egypt and eastern Asia, there came something like an invasion of strange, mysterious, seductive rites. Under Caligula, about A. D. 39, the worship of Isis became naturalized, so to speak, at Rome. After Isis, came Adonis and Aphrodite of Byblus, Elagabal of Emesa, the Baal of Doliche, and the celestial Virgin of Carthage, who drew crowds to their altars. They one and all prepared the way for that great Mithraic worship, that adoration of the sun god (Sol invictus), the last to hold out against the religion of Christ. These new cults had a more powerful sway over men's souls than did the ancient national cults. To a people enamored of festivities, they brought the emotions of their rollicking processions and their secret terrors. To souls homesick for the Infinite, they opened their mysteries, they offered a glimpse, in a blessed beyond, of some sort of intimate fusion with an ineffable divinity, all visible forces being merely its infinitely fertile and varied aspects.

We cannot say that the idea of perfection was entirely absent from this effort toward the purification which the new mysteries presupposed or which their followers were expected to acquire.[3] But this purification was chiefly external ritualistic; it left the heart untouched.[4] Some choice souls found in the legendary myths propagated by these religions an occasion for aspiring to a divine world. In reality, however, these myths were "the strangest and most indecent of all paganism."[5] While the public and secret ceremonies of the new religions, infested with magic and immorality, succeeded in inspiring the popular masses with nothing but the very lowest religious ideas, this great All-Infinite, which lofty minds conceive, yet wherein evil and ugliness have a place as essential as goodness and beauty, suggested to them the notion of a truly moral and supernatural life. In spite of outward similarities, which have been carefully collected and classified in vain,[6] the soul of that pagan world seemed essentially opposed to the spirit of the Gospel. The latter, therefore, did not hesitate to take its stand, knowingly and openly, as the enemy of all these religions; it ascribed their inspiration to the devil, and did not hide its intention of combating them everywhere, as one combats a mortal foe.

A certain clever writer has imagined a conversation between the Apostle Peter, reaching-Rome poor and ill-clad, and one of those idle Romans looking for news who were often to be met with at that time. The Galilean fisherman declares that he has neither gold nor silver, that he has spent a considerable part of his life fishing on a lake of his native country and mending his nets in order to gain a livelihood; that he now comes to preach a God who was put to death on a cross between two thieves; that he intends to introduce the worship of this God in place of the worship of devils and to spread it over the whole earth. The Roman shrugs his shoulders and goes his way, murmuring: "Poor fool."[7] Tacitus' and Suetonius' contemptuous way of speaking about the Christians makes such a dialogue seem not improbable.[8]

Early traditions relate that Peter came to Rome about the year 42, immediately after his miraculous deliverance from prison. These traditions appear likely. A number of very ancient Roman sarcophagi depict the imprisoned Apostle. It may be conjectured that the early Church of Rome wished thereby to represent the relation between St. Peter's imprisonment and his coming to the Eternal City. The Acts of the Apostles says that, after Peter was freed, "he went into another place."[9] Might not this other place be Rome?[10] Another argument has been drawn from a passage of Suetonius. The historian is speaking of Emperor Claudius' expulsion of the Jews from Rome; he says this measure was decided upon following a disturbance stirred up among these Jews by a certain Chrestus.[11] It would seem that he is confusing the founder of Christianity, Christ, whose name is slightly altered, and some important leader whose coming or residence in Rome gave a new impetus to the Christian propaganda. If this is not the Apostle Peter, to which of Christ's Apostles or disciples are we to attribute the honor of being mistaken for the Master?[12]

Upon reaching Rome, Peter must have been welcomed by more than one brother in the faith. Among the strangers in Jerusalem on Pentecost, baptized by St. Peter, St. Luke mentions inhabitants of Rome.[13] These converts, after returning home, no doubt related the wonders they had witnessed, and such of their compatriots as made the same Jerusalem pilgrimage in the following years could but confirm what the first converts had said about the new religion. There is every likelihood that some of these latter were also converted and in turn may have converted some Jews of Rome. In any case, in the Jewish quarters of Porta Capena, Campus Martius, Trastevere, and Subura, where the closely united children of Israel plied a variety of trades - cobblers, retailers of everyday articles, or high-class merchants whose fine shops[14] were frequented by the aristocracy - there must have been talk of the Galilean prophet, His death, His Resurrection, and the strange events that occurred on Pentecost.

It was in one of the poor quarters inhabited by the Jews that the Apostle lodged.[15] Having neither learning nor rank nor high social standing, he was probably not invited to speak in the synagogues, as later on happened to St. Paul, whose title of scribe would bring him this honor. The chief representative of Christ had to win souls one by one through informal conversations, testifying to all that compassion, love of the brotherhood, and indulgent charity accompanied with modesty and humility,[16] which he later recommended to his disciples. His first conquests were made among these poor, lowly people. Therefore, the philosophers of that time looked upon the Christians as "a collection of slaves, common laborers, and old women."[17]

St. Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs
Jan Styka (1858-1925)

Grouped about these Jews at Rome were a multitude of Orientals - Syrians, Egyptians, people of far-off Asia Minor - who were brought together by community of race and traditions. Among all of them the Messianic hope, more or less deformed, was very much alive. Says Suetonius: "There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world."[18] Some of these men must have given ear to Peter's words.

In the Roman world itself, the poor at least listened with delight to the words of peace, purity, and deliverance addressed to them by the Apostle. In this number were the slaves, those men without rights, without defense or standing, whom the Roman civil law treated as things. We hear, as it were, the echo of the Apostle's voice in this passage of his letter intended for them:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if for conscience towards God, a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it if, committing sin and being buffeted for it, you endure? But if doing well you suffer patiently, this is thankworthy before God. For unto this are you called: Because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps. [...] By whose stripes you were healed.[19]
These poor slaves were, in very truth, among those to whom Peter addressed these astonishing words:
You are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people; that you may declare His virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.[20]
Little by little, there gathered around the Apostle, besides the poor and the slaves, a number of pagan women of less lowly station. Perhaps they were of the number of those matrons whom the Latin poet shows us coming, athirst for moral purification, to ask in the worship of Isis for numerous ablutions and endless penances, entering the cold waters of the Tiber three times every morning and crawling around the Campus Martius with bleeding knees.[21]

Christianity gradually ascended from the lower ranks of society to the higher. Tacitus relates that, about the year 43, a matron of the highest social rank, Pomponia Graecina, quit the world after the murder of her friend Julia (daughter of Drusus), who was a victim of Messalina's intrigues. "She lived to a great age and in unintermitted sorrow."[22] Finally, her unusual manner of life aroused suspicion. She was accused of "embracing a foreign superstition" and was consigned to the adjudication of her husband Plautius, a man of consular rank, one of the conquerors of Britain. He adjudged her innocent, and, says the Roman historian, her conduct "during the reign of Claudius escaped with impunity and redounded thereafter to her honor."[23] This passage of Tacitus for a long time led to the supposition that this high-born matron had become a follower of Christ. De Rossi's archeological discoveries in the crypts of Lucina - e.g., the inscription of one Pomponios Grekeinos, probably a nephew of this Pomponia Graecina - led him to surmise that the cemetery known as that of Lucina, one of the most ancient of Christian Rome, was the property of Pomponia Graecina herself.[24] The great Roman lady, as wretched in her luxurious surroundings as the slaves in their chains, sought peace in the doctrine preached by the Galilean fisherman.

Emperor Claudius (10BC-54AD)
Conversions of this sort were, however, very rare in the first half of the first century. About the year 51, when the Emperor Claudius, because of a Roman tumult for which a certain Chrestus was held to blame, "commanded all Jews to depart from Rome," as we learn from St. Luke,[25] the Christian community must have been very largely composed of poor Jews. This was not the first time that the civil power dispersed the Roman Jewry. As on previous occasions, the banishment of the Jews did not last long. When the tumult quieted down, they were allowed to return little by little.[26] In a few years, perhaps in a few months, the Roman Jewry was reestablished, and Christianity resumed its continuous spread at Rome.


[1] "Unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness." (1 Cor. 1:23).
[2] Justinian, Digest, XXVIII, iii, 6, 7.
[3] Cf. Foucart, Les grands mystères d'Eleusis, p. 110.
[4] Cf. Juvenal, Satires, VI, 519-595; St. Jerome, Ep. ad Laetam, 7.
[5] Boissier, La Religion romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins, II, 384.
[6] On these tactics and claims, see Allo, L'Évangile en face du syncrétisme païen. For our exposition, we have borrowed liberally from this work. On the moral and religious condition of the Greco-Roman world, valuable information will be found in J. P. Kirsch, Kirchengeschichte, Vol. I, Freiburg, 1930, pp. 49 ff.; cf. Döllinger, The Gentile and the Jew.
[7] Gerbert, Esquisse de Rome chrétienne, I, 14-17.
[8] Tacitus, Annals, XV, 44; Suetonius, Claudius, 25.
[9] Acts 12:17.
[10] Marucchi, Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne, I, 11.
[11] "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome." (Suetonius, Claudius., 25). The name "Chrestus" was rather common at Rome among slaves and freedmen. To these two reasons we should add the testimony of ecclesiastical writers who, ever since St. Jerome, unanimously assign to St. Peter's pontificate a duration of twenty-five years, which they call "the years of Peter." It is true that some, as for instance the author of the catalogue of the popes (the Philocalian Calendar), place the beginning of these twenty-five years at Christ's Ascension, whereas others, such as pseudo-Ambrose (in his commentary on St. Paul, P. L., XVII, 45), begin the reckoning, not with St. Peter's coming to Rome, but with the foundation of the Roman community, and still others (e. g., Lactantius) declare that "during twenty-five years, and until the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Nero, they [the Apostles] occupied themselves in laying the foundations of the Church in every province and city. And while Nero reigned, the Apostle Peter came to Rome." (Lactantius, Death of the Persecutors, 2.) "None of these evidences goes back farther than the fourth century. But, since the Philocalian Calendar, insofar as it concerns the list of the popes, depends upon the Chronicle of St. Hippolytus, drawn up at Rome in 235, and as the latter depends upon earlier pontifical lists, we are led to believe that the twenty-five years of St. Peter were already set down in the episcopal lists of Rome toward the end of the second century. It is impossible to go farther back. Thus, early and independent testimonies give us the period of twenty-five years and connect it with St. Peter's apostolate; but this accord in the matter of the number of years ceases when we wish to know exactly to what that number applies." Duchesne, Les Origines chrétiennes, p. 28.
[12] Allard, Histoire des persécutions, I, 15.
[13] Acts 2:10.
[14] Martial, II, 17; V, 23; VI, 66; IX, 60; X, 87, etc.
[15] Probably in one of the lanes where the Jews of Trastevere and Porta Capena lived huddled together. Fouard, St. Peter and the First Years of Christianity, p. 344.
[16] Cf. 1 Pet. 3:8.
[17] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 33; Minucius Felix, Octavius, 16; Origen, Against Celsus, I, 62.
[18] Suetonius, Vespasian, IV; Tacitus, History, V, 13.
[19] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:18-24.
[20] Ibidem, 2:9.
[21] Juvenal, VI, 522. Cf. Tibullus, I, 3, 23-32.
[22] Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 32.
[23] Ibid.
[24] De Rossi, Roma sotterranea, I, 306-315; Northecote, Roma Sotteranea, I, 124, and Allard, Histoire des persécutions, I, 24-27. Cf. Marucchi, Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne, p. 13.
[25] Acts 18:2.
[26] Allard, Hist. des pers., I, 18-22.


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