Feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Sts Peter and Paul, at Rome – 18 November
From the twelfth century the Dedications of the Vatican Basilica of St Peter and the Basilica of St Paul on the Via Ostiense, have been celebrated on this day, as the anniversary of their dedication by St Pope Silvester and St Pope Siricius in the fourth century. In more recent times, this feast has been extended to the whole Roman Rite. As the anniversary of the Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary Major (5 August) honours the motherhood of Our Lady, so this Feast honours the memory of the two Princes of the Apostles.
The Vatican church, dedicated in honour of St Peter, is the second patriarchal church at Rome and in it reposes one half of the precious remains of the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul. The tombs of the great conquerors and lords of the world have been long since destroyed and forgotten but those of the martyrs are glorious by the veneration which the faithful pay to their memory. Amongst all the places which the blood of martyrs has rendered illustrious, that part of the Vatican hill which was consecrated with the blood and enriched with the relics of the prince of the apostles, has always been most venerable. “The sepulchres of those who have served Christ crucified,” says Saint Chrysostom, “surpass the palaces of kings, not so much in the greatness and beauty of the buildings (though in this also they go beyond them) as in another thing of more importance, namely, in the multitude of those who, with devotion and joy, repair to them. For the emperor himself, who is clothed in purple, goes to the sepulchres of the saints, and kisses them; and, humbly prostrate on the ground, beseeches the same saints to pray to God for him; and he who wears a royal crown upon his head, holds it for a great favour of God, that a tent-maker and a fisherman and these dead, should be his protectors and defenders and this he begs with great earnestness.” And Saint Austin, or another ancient father. “Now at the memory of the fisherman the knees of the emperor are bowed and the precious stones of the imperial crown shine most where the benefits of the fisherman are most felt.”
The body of Saint Peter is said to have been buried immediately after his martyrdom, upon this spot, on the Vatican hill, which was then without the walls and near the suburb inhabited by the Jews. The remains of this apostle were removed hence, into the cemetery of Calixtus, but brought back to the Vatican. Those of Saint Paul were deposited on the Ostian Way, where his church now stands. The tombs of the two princes of the apostles, from the beginning, were visited by Christians with extraordinary devotion above those of other martyrs. Caius the learned and eloquent priest of Rome, in 210, in his dialogue with Proclus, the Montanist, speaks thus of them: “I can show you the trophies of the apostles. For, whether you go to the Vatican hill, or to the Ostian road, you will meet with the monuments of them, who by their preaching and miracles founded this church.”
The Christians, even in the times of persecution, adorned the tombs of the martyrs and the oratories which they erected over them, where they frequently prayed. Constantine the Great, after founding the Lateran church, built seven other churches at Rome and many more in other parts of Italy. The first of these were, the churches of Saint Peter on the Vatican hill (where a temple of Apollo and another of Idaea, mother of the gods, before stood) in honour of the place where the prince of the apostles had suffered martyrdom and was buried and that of Saint Paul, at his tomb on the Ostian road. The yearly revenues which Constantine granted to all these churches, amounted to seventeen thousand seven hundred and seventy golden pence, which is above thirteen thousand pounds sterling, counting the prices, gold for gold but, as the value of gold and silver was then much higher than at present, the sum in our money at this day would be much greater. These churches had also a yearly income of above one thousand six hundred pounds upon the spices which Egypt and the East furnished. The churches of Saint Peter had houses at Antioch and lands round about that city; at Tarsus, in Cilicia and at Tyre, also in Egypt, near Alexandria, in the province of Euphrates and elsewhere. A part of these lands was appointed every year to furnish a certain quantity of spikenard, frankincense, balm, storax, cinnamon, saffron, and other precious drugs for the censers and lamps. Anastasius gives a large account of the rich vessels of gold and silver which Constantine gave for the service of these churches; but, perhaps, confounded some later presents with those of this emperor.
These churches were built by Constantine in so stately and magnificent a manner as to vie with the finest structures in the empire, as appears from the description which Eusebius gives us of the church of Tyre, for we find that the rest were erected upon the same model, which was consequently of great antiquity.
Saint Peter’s church on the Vatican, being fallen to decay, it was begun to be rebuilt under Julius II, in 1506 and was dedicated by Urban VIII, in 1626, on this day, the same on which the dedication of the old church was celebrated. The precious remains of many popes, martyrs and other saints are deposited partly under the altars of this vast and beautiful church and partly in a spacious subterraneous church under the other. But the richest treasure of this venerable place consists in the relics of Saints Peter and Paul, which lie in a sumptuous vault beyond the middle of the church towards the upper end, under a magnificent altar, at which only the pope says mass, unless he commissions another to officiate there. This sacred vault is called, The confession of Saint Peter, or, The threshold of the Apostles, (Limina Apostolorum,) to which devout persons have flocked, in pilgrimages, from the primitive ages.
Churches are dedicated only to God, though often under the patronage of some saint; that the faithful may be excited to implore, with united suffrages, the intercession of such a saint, and that churches may be distinguished by bearing different titles. “Neither do we,” says Saint Austin, “erect churches, or appoint priesthoods, sacred rites, and sacrifices to the martyrs because, not the martyrs but the God of the martyrs, is our God. Who, among the faithful, ever heard a priest, standing at the altar which is erected over the body of a martyr to the honour and worship of God, say, in praying: We offer up sacrifice to thee, O Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian; when at their memories (or titular altars) it is offered to God, who made them both men and martyrs and has associated them to his angels in heavenly honour.” And again: “We build not churches to martyrs as to gods, but memories as to men departed this life, whose souls live with God. Nor do we erect altars to sacrifice on them to the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, and our God.”
Constantine the Great gave proofs of his piety and religion by the foundation of so many magnificent churches, in which he desired that the name of God should be glorified on earth, to the end of time. Do we show ours by our awful deportment and devotion in holy places and by our assiduity in frequenting them? God is everywhere present and is to be honoured by the homages of our affections in all places. But in those which are sacred to Him, in which our most holy mysteries are performed and in which His faithful servants unite their suffrages, greater is the glory which redound to Him from them and He is usually more ready to receive our requests: the prayers of many assembled together being a holy violence to his mercy.