The great Roman archeologist Margherita Guarducci wrote a book some years back titled The Primacy of the Church of Rome: Documents, Reflections, Proofs. In it she details Rome’s many primacies. The most famous, of course, is its status as first among the Christian patriarchates. She goes on to note many lesser “primacies”: the Eternal City possesses the oldest portrait of Jesus, the oldest portrait of Mary, the oldest Christian basilica, the oldest Christian statue.
She describes Rome as “the ancient destination of Christian travelers.” Who made the arduous pilgrimage to the first city? From Asia and Africa came Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, Abercius, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen. Even the heretics felt for Rome what Frank Sinatra would one day sing about New York, New York: “If I make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” So they took their perverted message to the capital — Marcion, Valentinus, and a gaggle of others.
Those Christians who couldn’t make the trip to Rome at least sent letters, many of which have survived: Dionysius of Corinth, Melito of Sardis …
One and all, these pre-Nicene Christians drew their ecclesiastical maps based on the New Testament, and all roads led to one city. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the center of Christian activity shifting from Jerusalem to Rome. The capital of the empire was the ultimate earthly destination of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. Ancient traditions are unanimous in recording that both Peter and Paul died there. The earliest Christians made pilgrimages to the apostles’ tombs and left pious graffiti along the way. Visitors to Rome can still view these scrawled messages today.
Simon Peter had received authority when Jesus pronounced him the “Rock” on which the Church would be built. In the years after Pentecost, Peter served as the chief spokesman, supreme judge, authoritative teacher, principal preacher, and most powerful healer in the community. This authority remained with him until his death, and it transferred to the men who succeeded him as Bishop of Rome.
Before the end of the first century, we see Pope St. Clement of Rome writing fatherly letters of reproval and instruction to the Christians in distant Corinth. The letter was read in the liturgy at Corinth for at least a century afterward, treated like canonical Scripture.
Just a few years after Clement’s passing, we find St. Ignatius, who succeeded Peter as Bishop of Antioch, writing letters of instruction to many churches, but deferring only to one church: the Church of Rome.
At the end of the 100s, St. Irenaeus confirmed the primacy of Rome and the papacy. The Bishop of Lyons cited “that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul … which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority — that is, the faithful everywhere inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by faithful men everywhere.” Irenaeus also supplied a complete list of popes, from Peter to his own day.
Saints Peter and Paul have always shared a single feast day. On that feast day in 441, Pope St. Leo the Great preached a homily rejoicing that he could trace his own lineage in an unbroken line to the greatest of the apostles. Modern Popes can make the same claim.
“These are the men,” said Leo, “through whom the light of Christ’s gospel shone on you, O Rome, and through whom you, who were the teacher of error, were made the disciple of Truth. These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave you claim to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms … They promoted you to such glory … the head of the world through St. Peter’s Holy See.”
Rome remains “the ancient destination of Christian travelers” even in our own day. For it is ever ancient and ever new. With my colleagues at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology — Scott and Kimberly Hahn and others — I’ll be leading a pilgrimage there in May of 2007. We’ll have guided tours, classes and talks, daily Mass, and lots of slack-jawed, awestruck moments in the city of so many great Fathers. If you’re interested in joining us, drop me a note with your contact information, and I’ll inform you as soon as our plans firm up.