There are more than 900 churches in the city of Rome. Wikipedia curiously notes that “most, but not all, of these are Catholic.” Of these near thousand churches, 66 are designated as basilicas, that is, a church building that has been recognized and accorded special privileges by the pope. Of these 66 buildings, four are honored as major or papal basilicas, indicating that only the Pope or his delegate may offer Mass at the church’s principal altar.
One of these four is, in turn, an archbasilica, clearly the most important Roman Catholic Church in the entire world. The “Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran,” as the edifice is properly and fully labelled, is actually the cathedral church of Rome, housing the official papal throne. The building is usually known as St. John Lateran. (The Laterani family donated the original property in the 4th century!)
The other three major Roman basilicas are St. Mary Major, St. Paul, outside the walls, and certainly St. Peter’s at the Vatican, probably the most famous church in the world. A basilica however is not simply an architectural wonder or an ecclesiastical museum. The 1989 Vatican document, Domus Ecclesiae, insists that every basilica must “stand out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy.” One of the liturgical obligations that accompany basilica status is the requirement that the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul celebrated each year on June 29 be observed “with particular care.”
The saints after whom these four chief basilicas are named are surely and appropriately recalled as integral to the founding and furthering of the Gospel message. The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, and St. John the Evangelist were key witnesses to the Christian church’s foundation. It is equally fitting that Simon, re-named Peter, and Saul, re-named Paul, apostles respectively to the first Jewish converts and to the wider Gentile world, should be recalled and honored as the twin cornerstones of Christianity that they indeed were. Rhode Island Catholics may happily note that our local cathedral boasts these same patrons, SS. Peter and Paul, whose mutual feast day is celebrated this week.
In honoring these two Church founders on the same solemnity, the Christian world recognizes that the universal Church is by nature both an organizational and a charismatic institution. St. Peter, appointed directly by Christ as the head of the Apostolic band, and St. Paul, “one born out of due time,” manifest in their diverse apostolic work both the structural nature of the ecclesial community founded by Christ as well as the spirit-filled environment that must pervade the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
St. Peter was among those, including SS. John and James, “who were reputed to be pillars,” and the very first one with whom Saul conferred “for fifteen days” at Jerusalem after his conversion. As chief representative of the Church’s organizational framework, St. Peter’s taking meals according to Jewish law was particularly reprehensible to St. Paul who expected a better example from the “rock” upon whom Christ had founded his Church. St. Peter was constituted as chief of the Apostles and as the visible head of the Church receiving “directly and immediately from Christ a primacy of true and proper jurisdiction,” as the Gospel accounts attest and as Vatican I formally taught. He was the Church’s first “company man,” both in time and in office. This Office of Peter has continued through the ages in the person of our Holy Father, the Pope, the bishop of Rome.
St. Paul, on the other hand, never met Christ, was not of the original Apostolic band and was never bishop of a residential see. St. Paul was primarily an evangelist, preaching the Gospel, planting the seeds of faith, encouraging infant churches to be faithful, and then entrusting his work to overseers like SS. Titus and Timothy while he moved on to farther sites. As St. Paul noted to the church at Corinth, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it (3:10).” St. Paul’s charismatic graces empowered him to enable new believers in Christianity to contribute in turn toward the effectiveness of the infant Church communities of which they were members. Pope Francis’ “Synodal Church” in which each believing community would respond to its own needs and thus thrive within the larger framework of Catholic Christianity would no doubt please St. Paul.
SS. Peter and Paul, as founding fathers, bear witness to the Church’s ever present challenge to be faithful to her roots but open towards new endeavors. Indeed, SS. Peter and Paul, pray for us!