Tag Archives: Saints John and Paul

A Church with a Mission


Ss. Giovanni e Paolo 

A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Jerome, the great 4th century scripture scholar and controversialist. I’ll be staying through October in a place well known to him in Rome– the Caelian Hill and the church of Saints John and Paul.

In Jerome’s day Rome’s rich and powerful lived on the Caelian Hill, across from the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum. Jerome had prominent friends among them. Pammachius, the ex- Roman senator who built Saints John and Paul, the noblewoman Paula and her daughter Eutochium, who later joined Jerome in his venture in Bethlehem to study the scriptures, her other daughter Blaesilla and others.

Interest in the scriptures ran high among well-off Caelian Christians then, but they also were keen for gossip and religious controversies. Jerome loved the scriptures, but he also loved the fight. His relationship with Paula and her family was part of the gossip that  probably figured among the reasons he left Rome for the Holy Land. Following him there, Paula created a monastic community in Bethlehem and she and her daughter undoubtedly played  a bigger part in Jerome’s scriptural achievements than they’re credited for.

Jerome’s a saint, but I appreciate why so many artists picture him doing penance for his sins. He needed God’s mercy.


Excavations, Saints John and Paul

Underneath Pammachius’ Church of Saints John and Paul are remains of Roman apartments going back to the 2nd-4th centuries, probably the best preserved of their kind in the city and a favorite for tourists.

Years ago, when I studied here, one of the rooms in the excavations was pointed out as part of a house church with Christian inscriptions , now archeologists are not so sure.. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t meet or worship in these buildings, only they didn’t create a special liturgical space for meeting or worship.  Christian evidence, however, says a “house church” was here early on.

Why then did Pammachius in the fourth century build the imposing basilica of Saints John and Paul here on the edge of the Coelian Hill facing the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum ? Many retired soldiers settled on the Caelian Hill then. Did he wish to win them to Christianity through the example of two soldier saints, John and Paul, who were honored in this church? Their remains are still found under the church’s main altar today.

Is there another reason? According to Richard Krautheimer, an expert on Rome’s early Christian churches, the emperor Constantine built St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, the first Christian churches, on the edge of the city most likely in deference to the sensibilities of the followers of Rome’s traditional religions. He didn’t want any Christian church in the “show areas” of the city, near the Roman forum or the Palatine hill.

Saints John and Paul, Interior



By Pammachius’ time Christianity was more assertive. Was Pammachius’ church a statement to the city that Christianity had arrived and wished to speak its wisdom here at the heart of traditional Roman religion, near the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum? Jerome’s new translations and commentaries, along with the works of St. Augustine and others, gave them something to say.

So was this a church with a mission? A lesson for the church of today? Speak to the world of your time.


Clivo di Scauri

Stations of the Cross






See also Stations of the Cross by young people at: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2018/documents/ns_lit_doc_20180330_via-crucis-meditazioni_en.html

Saints John and Paul

The 5th century church of Saints John and Paul stands on the western spur of the Coelian Hill near the center of imperial Rome, across from the ruins of the emperors’ palaces on the Palatine Hill, the Roman forum and the Colosseum.

The Coelian Hill was an important area in early Christian Rome. In imperial times, wealthy senatorial families lived in quiet walled mansions on the hill; apartment houses (insulae) for the middle class and the poor stretched along the roads crossing it. A garrison of imperial troops was stationed there. Some Christians were among these various groups on the hill early on.

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (160-180 AD) was raised on the Coelian Hill. Constantine (312-337 AD) built a baptistery, a residence for the pope and the impressive Lateran Basilica on the eastern spur of the Coelian on land he confiscated from his enemies after conquering the city in 311 AD. The bishops of Rome resided on the Coelian from the 4th to the 14th century, then they moved across the city to the Vatican.

Other prominent Christians were assocated with the Coelian Hilly by the 5th century, when the Church of Saints John and Paul was built. The area was a lively spiritual and intellectual center attracting figures like St. Jerome, St. Augustine and spiritual teachers from the Egyptian desert who frequented the homes and churches on the Coelian.

St. Melania the Younger (+439), from one of Rome’s richest families, lived near Saints John and Paul. Shortly before Alaric’s army invaded the city in 410 she sold her home and lands  and left for Africa with her husband to be near Augustine and his community at Hippo. Eventually, Melania began an important monastery for women on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The lands next to Saints John and Paul belonged to the wealthy Christian family of St. Gregory the Great (590-604 ) which gave the church two popes before Gregory: Pope St. Felix III (483-492) and Pope St. Agapitus (535-536), Gordian, the father of Agapitus, was a priest of the Church of Saints John and Paul. A splendid Christian library–its ruins visible today across the Clivus Scauri from the church– may go back further than its patron, Agapitus. The Church of St. Gregory the Great stands opposite to the Church of Saints John and Paul.

After Constantine freed Christianity in 312 AD, Christians from the Coelian must have taken part in an effort to win over to Christianity the powerful Roman majority that remained distant and sometimes resentful of the new faith. The Church of Saints John and Paul must have been part of an effort of Christian evangelization.

Before 312 AD, Christians promoted their faith cautiously; now they presented it boldly, using the Christian scriptures freshly translated by St. Jerome, along with his learned commentaries. The new faith, St. Augustine argued in his City of God, far from causing the empire to fall, offered it a powerful new wisdom it needed. Roman Christians confidently believed they had something to say to their city and made their appeal from splendid new churches, rivaling Rome’s temples and shrines.

Was the church of Saints John and Paul – the first to be built in the “show area” of the imperial city, next to the Roman temple of Claudius, close to the Roman forum, the heart of Rome – an example of this new Christian assertiveness? Until then, so as not to offend the Roman majority, new Christian buildings were confined to the city’s edge (the Lateran Basilica is an example).  Was the church a visual statement that Christianity had arrived?

The builder of Saints John and Paul was a one-time leader of the Roman senate, Pammachius (340-410 AD). His wife was Paolina, daughter of the influential noblewoman St.Paula, who accompanied St. Jerome to the Holy Land. They had no children, and when Paolina died in 360 Pammachius dedicated himself to the spiritual life, promoting scripture study and caring generously for the poor. St. Jerome, a long-time friend and regular correspondent, admired the Roman nobleman’s deep faith and keen mind. Another friend, St. Paulinus of Nola, called Pammachius the “most generous patron the church could have.”

Pammachius built his 5th century church using as its foundations three existing buildings, two of them 3rd century apartment houses facing the Clivus Scauri. Most likely, the Roman senator, saw the church as a spiritual and intellectual beacon in the heart of the city.

Pammachius died in 410 AD, the year Alaric and the Goths invaded Rome, creating panic and uncertainty in the city. Many of the inhabitants on the Coelian Hill fled to safety beyond Rome or to other parts of the city.  Almost a century later the great Christian scholar Cassiodorus speaks regretfully of abandoning a joint project to promote Christian learning which he planned to undertake with Agapitus, whose great library stood across the street from Pammachius’ church.

As we have already said, the present 5th century church is built on the structures of some houses that can still be seen beneath it. There’s evidence that Christians met in one of these houses, a “house church,” bearing Pammachius’ name. It’s  listed among the twenty five early Christian house-churches that existed in the city.

Pammachius’ house-church had another distinction. Bodies of Christian martyrs were buried and honored there, even before the upper basilica was built. Two soldier martyrs, John and Paul, said to have been put to death by the Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362, are the most prominent of the group. By the time of the church synod in Rome in 595, the church of Pammachius was also known as the Church of Saints John and Paul.

Scholars are still puzzled by the stories of the martyrs, John and Paul. Different versions have appeared, the earliest from the 6th century. According to the earliest “Passion” (an account of martyrdom), John and Paul were two Christian officers of the Emperor Constantine, who made them guardians of his daughter, Constantia. Thanks to his generosity, the two brothers bought a house on the Coelian Hill and retired there.

When Julian the Apostate, became emperor, he called the two brothers back into imperial service as his aides. But they refused, because the emperor had betrayed the Christian faith into which he was baptized. Julian, incensed at their refusal, gave them ten days to reconsider; unless they complied with his request, he would charge them with impiety, which was punishable by death. During the next ten days, the brothers prepared for their martyrdom by giving away their possessions to the poor.

Fearful that open persecution would antagonize the Christians, Julian chose to deal with the two soldiers privately. So he sent one of his captains, Terentianus, to their home to command obedience from them and to sacrifice to the gods. When they remained firm, they were beheaded and secretly buried in their home. To cover up their death, officials started the rumor that they were sent into exile. Three other Christians, the priest Crispus, the cleric Crispinianus and the woman Benedicta were martyred along with the brothers.

Shortly afterwards, the truth came out, and John and Paul, as well as the others, were honored at a shrine built over their graves in the apartments along the Clivus Scauri, which may have been their home. Later, a stairway connected the shrine to the church built above.

The cult of the two soldier saints grew as miracles were reported through their intercession. By the 6th century, their names were listed in the ancient Roman Canon; their feast was celebrated in Rome, Milan and Ravenna on June 23rd, which may be the day of their martyrdom.

The two martyred soldiers would have been favorites of the soldiers stationed on the Coelian Hill, who passed their shrine on the Clivus Scauri regularly. They also reminded Christians of Pammachius’ day – who were becoming increasingly more comfortable in Roman society after the years of persecution – that those who follow Jesus must be ready to bear their cross.

Churches share the fate of the places where they are built. The church of Saints John and Paul’s fortune changed following the invasion of the Visigoths in 410. Other barbarian invaders swept through the empire after them, and Rome’s population dwindled from about 800,000 in 400 AD to perhaps 100,000 by 500 AD. Most of the wealthy families from the Coelian fled to the safety of Constantinople or Ravenna. The remaining population either moved from the city or relocated in its westward section, leaving the hill largely abandoned and depopulated. It remained that way until the end of the 19th century.

After a brief shining mement as a center for early Coelian Christians, the Church of Saints John and Paul came under the papal court located at the Lateran area nearby, and depended upon the fluctuating resources of the popes of the time. An annotation from the Liber Pontificalis in the 8th century says that Pope Hadrian I (772-795) “began to renovate the titulus Pammachii, of Saints John and Paul, which had become run down over the years.” Through the dark ages, to medieval times, until today, the church was kept standing by popes, cardinal protectors, religious communities and benefactors who mended, altered or restored its fabric.

By the 6th century, Saints John and Paul was no longer a thriving parish church, but an isolated martyrs’ shrine in an abandoned area of the city. Yet, as Rome under the popes of the 7th century became a magnet for pilgrims flocking to the city’s shrines (especially the shrines of St. Peter and St. Paul), the church of the soldier martyrs on the Coelian Hill also attracted visitors.

From the 11th to the 13th centuries, cardinal protectors provided the popular church with a beautiful bell tower, solid walls and enlarged monastic buildings. Pilgrim guidebooks of the time give the church a place of honor because, uniquely, it contained martyrs’ tombs within the city walls. The 12th century historian and guide, William of Malmesbury, writes: “Inside the city, on the Coelian hill, John and Paul, martyrs, lay in their own house, which was made into a church after their death.”

From the 8th century onward, monastic and religious communities took up residence next to the shrine. The latest religious community making a home there is the Passionists whose founder, St. Paul of the Cross, was a zealous Italian preacher and mystic of the 18th century. Pope Clement XIV, because of his friendship and admiration for the saint, asked him in 1773 to take over the ancient monastery and church. With seventeen Passionist religious, Paul moved into the monastery of Saints John and Paul, and it has been the seat of administration for his worldwide congregation ever since. Paul spent his last years and died there on October 18, 1775.

Paul of the Cross was proclaimed a saint on June 29, 1867. On April 25, 1880 his remains were brought to the beautiful classical chapel built in his honor on the right hand side of the basilica of Saints John and Paul. The rooms where he lived and died, overlooking the piazza, are carefully preserved in the old monastery.
Besides the saintly founder, other Passionists honored by the church are associated with the place. Among them are: Saint Vincent Strambi (1745-1824), former superior of Saints John and Paul, who was named Bishop of Macerata and suffered during the Napoleonic occupation; Blessed Dominic Barberi (1792-1849), who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church; Blessed Bernard Mary Silvestrelli (1831-1911), a superior general of the Passionists who prepared for their worldwide expansion in the 20th century; and Blessed Eugene Bossilkov, a Passionist Bishop martyred by the communists in Bulgaria in 1950.

Today the monastery is a residence for Passionist students from many countries and also the site of the community’s administration.
In the late 19th century, a Passionist religious, Father Germano Ruoppolo (1850-1909) conducted extensive excavations under the church. He uncovered the remains of the early 2nd and 3rd century apartments and homes that were the foundations of the later basilica, as well as the streets of the ancient site and the confession where the martyrs were honored.
Father Germano was also the spiritual director of St. Gemma, an Italian mystic who, from her childhood, was devoted to the mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Today, she is buried in a shrine named in her honor in Lucca. Not far from her rests the body of her saintly guide, Father Germano, Passionist; his own cause for canonization is in process.
Father Germano’s successor in the excavations at Saints John and Paul was Passionist Brother Lambert Budde, who worked there from 1909-1911.

Further explorations were conducted from 1956-1958 through the generosity of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John Kennedy. Cardinal Terence Cooke and Cardinal John O’Connor, successors to Cardinal Francis Spellman as archbishops of New York, also had title to this important Roman church.
The present cardinal protector of Saint John and Paul is the archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan, who took possession of the church February 24, 2001.

Visiting Saints John and Paul
The bell tower was built in the 12-13th century over the travertine foundations of the 1st century Temple of Claudius and the Claudianum. The large sunken door to the left of the bell tower on the piazza leads to an ancient street before the Claudianum.
The buildings to the left of the bell tower belong to the 11-12 century Monastery of Saints John and Paul,  built by Cardinal Theobald. Its original entrance, now enclosed, is seen to the right of the narthex (or porch at the entrance to the basilica) on the piazza. The double-arched windows above the door to the Claudianum mark the room where St.Paul of the Cross died. (October 18,1775)
The narthex was constructed by Cardinal di Sutri in the middle of the 12th century to protect pilgrims from the weather. Above it is the 13th century gallery, built by Cardinal Savelli, who became Pope Honorius III.
The five large pillars above columns on the upper facade of the basilica are from the original 5th century basilica.The large round dome to the right of façade was constructed in the 19th century as part of the shrine to St.Paul of the Cross.
On the left hand side of the basilica is the ancient street, Clivus Scauri, connecting the Coelian Hill to the Palatine Hill. Spanned by seven brick arches that buttress the 5th century church, the road runs past the 3rd century apartment houses on which the church is built, parts of which can be seen in the church’s foundations.
The excavations under the church can be visited from an entrance on the Clivus Scauri.
Inside the church, the story of Saints John and Paul is told in the paintings in the apse.
There is a painting of Pammachius above an altar to the upper right of the church.

Reading the Gospel of Mark

MarkThe Gospel of Mark, the first of the four gospels, written sometime between the year 65 to 70 AD. Each year it’s read on weekdays, from chapter 1-9, following the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus until Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This year it’s also read on Sundays through the year.

Mark’s gospel begins. not with Jesus’ birth, but with his Baptism, announced by John the Baptist.After his temptation in the desert, Jesus immediately goes into Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God is at hand.

In each weekday reading Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. He also faces growing opposition that eventually brings him to death.

From its very beginning, Mark’s Gospel offers intimations of the tragic mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Coming from the Jordan River where he is baptized by John, Jesus is led “at once” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. “ He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1,13) In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus constantly faces the forces of evil and death.

Almost half of Mark’s 16 chapters describe the final period of Jesus life, when he went up to Jerusalem and suffered, died and rose again. As chapter 8 ends, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but Jesus announces he must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed and raised up. Peter will have nothing to do with it. In response, Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him he’s thinking as man thinks and not as God does.

In God’s thinking, Jesus, his Son, must die and rise again. All who follow him must do the same. Peter’s not alone in not understanding God’s thinking; all the disciples, including us, are slow to understand. Our lack of understanding is emphasized in Mark’s gospel, which some have called “A passion narrative with an extended introduction,”

Many commentators say that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Christians of that city who suffered in the first great persecution of the church by Nero after a fire consumed the city in 64 AD.

I lived in Rome for a few years in the Monastery of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hill. The monastery was built over the Temple of Claudius; its gardens were once part of Nero’s gardens. From its heights you could see the Circus Maximus a short distance away where the great fire of 64 AD started and the extensive area that burned in the fire, up to Tiber River. Probably over a million people were affected by it.

The Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and had many of them arrested and put to death in his gardens and at the Vatican circus across the city.

I was living in the gardens where some of those early Christians were put to death, I believe. On the other side of the Colosseum, a short distance away, was the Roman prefecture and prison were many of them would likely have been held and sentenced. The Church of St. Peter in Chains stands there today.

I narrated a video about that church and the early persecution which may help you understand the church Mark wrote for. The persecution must have had a devastating affect on the Christians of Rome at the time, innocent people completely taken by surprise by this brutal injustice. They didn’t understand it at all. Neither did his first disciples understand, Mark’s gospel says.

June 30th

June 30th, following the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we celebrate the early Christian martyrs put to death by Nero after the disastrous fire that burned down much of the city July 19, 64 AD. If I were in Rome today I would go to the church of Saint Peter in Chains or to the gardens of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hiill to remember them.

The two apostles were put to death around this time and many (we don’t know how many) followed them.

There’s a blog and a video on the church of St. Peter in Chains here and here.And a video on the Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Saints John and Paul here. There’s also a video on the Quo Vadis story here.

The persecution and martyrdom  in 64 throws light on the creation of the Gospel of Mark, which many think was written in Rome afterwards.

One thing I think this feast and the Gospel of Mark suggests: the Church of Rome did not flee from the uncertainty and persecution it faced then. I think the Quo Vadis story indicates that. It didn’t give up.

We pray today:


you sanctified the Church of Rome

with the blood of its first martyrs.

May we find strength from their courage

and rejoice in their triumph.

We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son.