Many of you already know that I had the blessing of studying in Rome for five years. While I was there, I attended the North American College, the seminary for American seminarians studying in the Eternal City. The “NAC,” as we affectionately called it, was perched atop the Janiculum Hill, which with the Vatican Hill, sits just on the other side of the Tiber River from Rome’s city center. [You’ll notice, by the way, if you’ve ever get to Rome, that the Vatican “Hill” doesn’t seem to be very hilly anymore; that’s because for the construction of the current St. Peter’s Basilica, the hill was razed!] The placement of the NAC is honestly ideal, as from the rooftop terrace, you can see the entire Vatican City and the whole of the ancient city of Rome laid out before you!
Atop the highest wall of the North American College—outside the infirmary located on the sixth floor (just next to where you stand to take in what is arguably the best view of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome)—is scrawled a curious little Latin phrase: O Roma felix quae duorum principum es consecrata glorioso sangue. I remember the first time I stopped to actually read it and to try my hand at translating it (which is always an iffy experiment). When I realized what it said, it gave me goosebumps. There, where few can see it except those who come and take in this beautiful panorama of Rome, is written: “O Happy Rome, you who have been consecrated by the glorious blood of the two princes!”
The two “princes” refer to the two princes of the Apostles, namely St. Peter and St. Paul, and the blood which is referenced is the blood of their martyrdom. Rome was the location of both influential saints’ deaths. St. Peter—the first pope and leader of the merry band of Apostles—died in AD 64 during the reign of Emperor Nero and was subsequently buried in a necropolis just outside of the circus where his upside-down crucifixion took place. That site is now the site of the current St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Paul—the author of a significant portion of the New Testament and fierce early propagator of the faith—likely died around the same time, also as a martyr for the faith, beheaded just off the Via Laurentina. Over the mortal remains of St. Paul was built another great basilica: St. Paul Outside the Walls (so named because it is located outside the ancient walls of Rome).
It is often said that the seed of the Church is the blood of the martyrs, by which of course is meant that the Church is built on the faith that the martyrs professed. While it may sound morbid to call Rome “happy” for its being witness to the death of these two great saints, there is a certain blessedness that the Eternal City and our Church enjoys for the fact that it bears the testimony of St. Peter and St. Paul.
On June 29, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, a day which is meant to commemorate the martyrdom of both of these great saints. Since the early third century, their deaths have been celebrated in one feast, though both saints are also celebrated separately (the Conversion of St. Paul is on 25 January and the Chair of St. Peter is on 22 February). In remembering Ss. Peter and Paul, may we be reminded that our Church is indeed built on the testimony of these martyrs, and that the Church has always thrived in the midst of persecution. May we remember that our mission, like theirs, is to spread the Good News in the midst of a hostile world.
St. Peter and St. Paul, princes of the Apostles, watch over our Church and guide us through your intercession, that we may carry the message of Christ’s life as you did, truly, to the ends of the world!
Keep spreading joy!