Friday, January 18, 2013

St. Paul's Housewarming

One day during Christmas break, I was wandering the roads less traveled in Rome’s historic district until I finally ended up on the congested via del Corso. I came across the church, Santa Maria in via Lata, which was open, since it was later in the afternoon. So I decided to stop in for a short visit. It had been twelve years since I had been there, and it already carried a special memory for me. Little did I know that I was about to make another memory that would dwarf just about every other spiritual or sentimental connection I had with the place.

I already knew that it was built over the rooms that according to tradition, served as St. Paul’s living quarters while he was under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar. (See Acts 28:16-31.) I remember twelve years ago peering down a very dark stairway that was filled with rubble and so, was inaccessible to the public. This time I had barely stepped into the vestibule of the church when I was greeted by a man at a table, who beckoned to me to visit the recently restored site! Giuseppe wouldn’t even charge me the two Euros it cost to get in. When he learned that I was one of the Prisoner’s Daughters and was in the process of writing the text for a PBM app on the places connected with Peter and Paul in Rome, he got on his cell phone and called the rector, Fr. Amatori, who appeared in (almost) a New York second to give me a personal tour.

Recently discovered frescoes in the crypt
We headed down those stairs, now trafficked and well-lit. My guide explained that three other locations in the city claim to have housed Paul as prisoner. The least likely is the Mamertine Prison in the Roman Forum, the Empire’s hub of public life. Another possibility is a place on the Aventine Hill, which I haven’t seen yet. Lastly, we have what is  probably the strongest contender: the sanctuary in the church of San Paolo alla Regola, which is built in place of the house in the Jewish Quarter or “Ghetto,” a word that in Italian does not carry the same negative connotation it does in current English. Since the Acts of the Apostles states that, once established, Paul summoned the leaders of the synagogue to explain himself, he may well have lodged in the vicinity. That’s not conclusive proof for Regola, however, since at Paul’s time there were eleven synagogues in Rome, and Acts doesn’t say which one received his invitation to pranzo.

When I had visited Fr. Fernando Cornet in Sardinia over Christmas break, I learned a little something about Roman penal practice. He’s a scholar on the Fathers of the Church and a friend of our American FSP Choir. He said that, unlike our modern European and American systems of justice, prisons were not designed to punish people for crimes they committed. They were nothing more than holding pens for those awaiting trial or execution. Since Roman executors of justice were in no hurry to hear your case, that holding pattern could circle for years. If you were not suspected of a capital crime and posed no immediate danger to society, you could rent lodgings and hire a guard. Hence, Paul’s need to work for a living in the meantime.

The crypt that Fr. Amatori was now showing me dates back to the first or second century A.D. Paul would have been there in the 60’s. About a 15-minute walk from the Roman Forum, the apartment was part of what may have been a warehouse complex that certainly extended the length of almost two-and-a-half football fields, between Piazza Colonna and Piazza Venezia. A kind of post office was located across the street.

In each room two travertine rock brackets on opposite walls from each other would have been used to support a slab that served as a ceiling for the lower room (Paul’s shop?) and a floor for the upper one (his apartment?). Excavations also revealed a garden fountain and a well. Now, I don’t know the first thing about tent-making or leather-working, but I’m told that a water source is essential. In fact, the proximity of the Jewish Ghetto to the River Tiber lends support to the Regola location. At any rate, archaeologists fished out of this well a number of Roman-era objects, including, of all things, a length of rusty chain. While we don’t want to get too romantic over this—it could have been tossed there by anyone anytime—a period column clearly shows a chain’s rust marks, and a Latin inscription on it reads, “The word of God is not chained,” from 2Tm. 2:9. No doubt, an act of devotion, but it does send a tingle down the spine. At the very least, it testifies to the influence that the Apostle has had for centuries on the faith of millions.

Three layers of frescoes
That influence prompted pilgrimages to the site early on. By the end of the sixth century—so, only five hundred years later—a monastic community from either Greece or Cappadocia had moved in and built a chapel in one of the rooms. They stayed for a few centuries until a women’s community took up residence in the same rooms. They carved out their own chapel, and the eleventh-century church followed. In fact, excavators have discovered three layers of frescoes from three different periods.

Sr. Filippa Castronovo, FSP, whom I introduced you to in October (10/16/2012), just yesterday finished her series of presentations to us in the Charism Course on “Paul and Alberione.” One thing she said back then has stayed with me: “Spiritual writers and scholars tend to speak more about interpreting Paul than imitating him.”

That matches my experience: I audited a course at the Gregorian University last semester, in which the professor, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, referred to how Paul “interpreted” Christ. It takes more than just doing what Jesus or Paul would do. It means understanding them, fostering a friendship with them, learning from them, and above all, applying what we pick up from them in study and prayer to our own life-situations, some of which no one before us has encountered. Fr. Alberione used that word, too, when he held Paul up as the model of our apostolic spirituality—I ran across the passage today. When it came to using various media for evangelization, for instance, how many times the founder said that our pioneer Paulines were being asked to blaze trails where none existed. We still do. So do many others. And Paul is a wonderful companion.

A tradition holds that Peter was also a guest at the site of Paul’s house arrest. In fact, a marble bas-relief depicts St. Luke taking notes while Peter and Paul “discuss the organization of the Church.” As Fr. Amatori stated with a little smile, that’s pure fantasy. In the 60’s the Church of Rome consisted of perhaps 125 believers. This in a city that, within about fifty years, would boast a population of one million. Humanly speaking, the Church  was so small and insignificant, that “organization” was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

In addition, he pointed out, the Church everywhere in those early days was not a homogenous group of believers. There had already arisen different traditions, which eventually gave birth to the four versions of the Gospel, and in the extreme, different factions. We only have to read Paul’s epistles to get a whiff of that. In addition, Peter and Paul were not always on the same page, theologically. Fr. Amatori wasn’t referring to the basics of the Christian message; he was talking more about perspective and priorities. While both men no doubt respected each other and certainly wielded major influence in the Christian community in Rome, to the extent that even now people here seldom speak of one without mentioning the other, in life they were not on the best of terms and they attracted people with different viewpoints.

Had we lived like that almost five hundred years ago, we might never have had to endure Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church, with all the heartache and wars that followed. Both Catholics and Lutherans are gradually coming to terms over issues that could have been resolved if everyone had taken conversion to heart and seen through some of the language to what was really being said. But unlike Peter and Paul, the people at the eye of that storm were too heavily invested in matters other than ongoing conversion. In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that ends on the feast of St. Paul’s Conversion (Jan. 25), let’s pray for that for each other. The Pauline Family will gather tomorrow evening for Mass at the tomb of St. Paul in the Basilica that bears his name, precisely to pray for this. I’ll be sure to take you with me.
Photos used with permission from Santa Maria in via Lata (


  1. Have you been outside of Rome to the Church of the Three Fountains? Many years ago an FSP took us there. You will see a column with chains around it and the account is similar to yours. Closeby is another church built over what some believe is the room where St. Paul lived before he was beheaded. Louise Hunt HFI

  2. Awesome I love these newsletters you are writing from Rome Sr Margaret. Thank you so much Sr Annie

  3. Ah, once again you have captivated this reader!!! Thanks for your lively and informative pages!
    Sr Raymond


Your turn! Share your good word with us.