The apostle to the gentiles
“And so we came to Rome. The believers there had heard that we were coming, and they travelled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. . .and they came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying.” [Acts28:16-17,23]
Paul had interrupted his journey with some time spent on the island of Malta prior to boarding a ship, which would ultimately land near the present Italian city of Naples. Travelling with Luke overland to Rome, they found pockets of Christians. Excitedly they sent word on to Rome that Paul had finally arrived and was on his way to the capital city. It is widely believed that many of the Christians from Rome travelled out to the Appian Way to greet him upon his arrival. Still under Roman guard, one needs to imagine though that after all he had been through since his conversion, he was finally being welcomed by Christians, believers. Ten years after expressing a desire to come to Rome he had finally arrived.
As we have seen in other places, Paul started with the members of the Jewish community in Rome and began to preach at the synagogue. Fortunately for him, the anger, antagonism, and opposition which marked the end of his preaching in Jerusalem and every place in between was not initially present and he came to the Roman Jews without any advance prejudice having been sent ahead. They listened but it did not take them long not to like what they heard, especially the prospect of a new religious movement following a so-called “Messiah.”
Perhaps he won a few converts from that community but history had a way of repeating itself and before long there were few left to listen to Paul. Once again his message turned to the gentiles who offered more hope for conversion and more openness to the message. Luke in Acts tells us that Paul remained in his own rented house in Rome for two full years. Under arrest this whole time and mostly in chains but with certain liberties, there is no record of any trial or punishment meted out on Paul while early in Rome. Like the energizer bunny, he just kept on preaching Jesus Christ. Paul is growing older, more weary, and knowing that the end is near. Nero has ascended the Roman throne, not the most balanced person in Roman history and seems initially to have had little to no interest in the case of Paul. Perhaps too those from Jerusalem did not pursue bringing the case once Paul was “out of sight and out of mind” there. Whatever, there was a long period of waiting for the proverbial shoe, or more accurately sword to drop.
To get some idea of Paul’s mind during this period in his life, one should read his second letter to Timothy, which is a personal reflection on his emotions, mind and heart during this period of his life. I shall not repeat it here as it is a brief letter and you can read it in its entirety in minutes. Conscious of the growing division between Jews and Gentiles which Christianity is bringing and aware that his own credibility with the Jews of Rome is suspect, it is thought that Paul invited someone else to write the Letter to the Hebrews, often attributed to him as actual author but believed unlikely by most scripture scholars. That is not to discount, however, that Paul may likely have been in the background saying to the actual author, “no, write this!”
Sometime in the third year, Paul’s best friend and “Johnny-on-the-spot” every time the great apostle got depressed and desperate, Timothy, comes to Rome and spends time with his mentor, buoying his spirits. Other friends and converts from his missionary stops also come to Rome and that joy can be seen in his writings in Philippians. Luke dies before Paul so our historian is no longer any help on Paul’s final years.
Paul wanted to die for his Lord just as his Lord had died for him and for us. He hoped for a trial before the Roman authorities and it seems he may have gotten his wish and before Nero to boot. Sometime in 63 or 64AD Paul’s trial was held. Death was the verdict and punishment but it could not be a death like that of Jesus, crucifixion, because Paul was a Roman citizen and they by law were not crucified. We believe that Paul was led outside of the city where he was beheaded. Thirty years after being knocked off his horse at the gate to Damascus, Paul entered eternal life outside of Rome.
Peter would suffer the same death sentence at the hands of Nero as Paul but as a Jew he would be crucified, upside down and buried in a communal pit on the Vatican hill outside of Rome. The charge given to Peter along the Sea of Galilee to “feed my lambs. . .feed my sheep” gave to the “prince of the apostles” the position of heading the Church and other than the question of baptism versus circumcision which led to and was settled by the Council of Jerusalem in 64AD, there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that Paul did anything other than respect Peter’s role. There is no evidence in Acts or the Pauline writings or in the writings of the early Church fathers to indicate any antagonism or difficulties between these two giants of the early church and of the faith.
After offering Mass this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica at the new altar of Blessed John Paul II, our remaining pilgrims and I attended the audience outside St. Peter’s with the successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI . Thus concludes our journey in the footsteps of Peter and Paul, from Galilee to Rhodes to Ephesus to Corinth to Rome. I am grateful for the gracious comments of those who have been following along with us and to the women and men who made this journey with me. Tomorrow some reflections of my brief time with Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday. When one has the opportunity that was ours for the past few weeks, scripture takes on new meaning and can be heard and understood in a different light at times. Monsignor Stephen Bosso, formerly Rector and professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, now pastor of St. Rose of Lima parish in Milton, Florida, was a great gift accompanying us and I learned an awful lot from his lectures and homilies. I am planning one final trip to the Holy Land before I leave and I know I will be returning to Rome, most likely in the Spring with the bishops of our region. At that time, every bishop must visit and offer Mass at St. Peter’s and again at St. Paul’s Outside of the Walls. I shall miss those who shared this experience with me.
A picture of our Holy Father taken on Wednesday by one of our pilgrims.