The Church, Lost and Found: My First Concise, Complete Conversion Narrative

Introduction

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where I entered the Church.

Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church, after more than thirty years as an Evangelical Protestant. I do not think of my story in terms of “leaving Protestantism.” I never thought that I was leaving or abandoning the faith I grew up with; in my mind, I was a coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the truth. I would not say that there was anything fundamentally deficient in my faith as a Protestant that would cause me to abandon it; instead it was incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. If my journey must be put it in the terms of leaving Protestantism, it is true that I did have to let go of some particular doctrinal formulations; but nothing I believe now is a contradiction or renunciation of anything I believed before. I feel that I now see the fuller picture, and have a fuller, more fulfilling relationship with God.

Growing Up

The story of my journey truthfully begins years and years ago, in my earliest childhood and earliest experiences as a Christian. I can see a thousand signposts all along the way that ultimately led me here, small realizations and inclinations and longings that didn’t find fulfillment until years later.

Pentecostes, El Greco_1597

El Greco, Pentecostés (1597).

I grew up mostly in a Pentecostal, Charismatic sort of Christianity; for most of my growing-up years I was a member of a vibrant Assemblies of God church in Decatur, Alabama. I had spent my earliest childhood in a small nondenominational church, then several years in the United Methodist church, visiting various Baptist churches along the way. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when I was three years old, was baptized when I was twelve, and had a committed and sincere but pretty superficial faith for most of my childhood. I never had much formal Bible study or instruction in doctrine. The few times I encountered any form of deep study, I lapped it up voraciously.

In high school I had a very dynamic youth pastor, who inspired me to be “on fire” for God and to strive to win my school for Christ. It was a very fervent and emotional faith. Being emotionally volatile like many teenagers, however, this also made it a volatile faith, and not a very firm foundation for a relationship with God. By the end of high school, I ended up feeling very hurt and abandoned by my church, and I fell away from church involvement, though I always prayed and claimed to be a Christian. I entered a long period of spiritual wandering.

The Church That Was Lost

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

In college I was drawn eventually to the study of history. My first important mentor in history, Dr. G, was an old-school medievalist and classicist with a burning love for the great men of history. He taught me Latin, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of learning and sources; and he taught me the history of Christianity. Some of the most important classes he taught me were the History of the Christian Church, from the beginning up through the Reformation, and Medieval Latin, in which we read firsthand, in their original languages, the writings of Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bede, and a dozen or so other Church Fathers and medieval Christian thinkers. Dr. G was the son of a long line of renowned Lutheran ministers. When he taught Church history, his lectures came alive with love and admiration for the Church Fathers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Gregory, Bernard, and many more—and with equal love and admiration for the Protestant Reformers. He presented this dichotomy without conflict or cognitive dissonance. It laid the foundation for the intellectual development of my faith.

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

Through all of that study I came to a great love of the Church Fathers, too. Reading them, I found a purer, realer faith than anything I had ever known in church, something immediate and profound that seemed unclouded by the doubt and uncertainty I had always felt growing up. I never associated the Church Fathers with the modern Catholic Church. In my mind, the modern Catholic Church was something of “dead religion,” caught up in empty ritual and cold theology and devoid of any sense of a real relationship with Christ. When I read the Church Fathers, I had the sense that their Church and their faith was lost and irrecoverable, and I lamented its loss.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, Rome.

At the culmination of that study, I went with Dr. G and a group from school to Rome, the Eternal City. Over a two-week course, we traversed the 3,000-year history of Rome, having lectures in the morning and then going out in the afternoon to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s era of history. I was especially—and unexpectedly—moved by the churches. Standing at the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, I was overcome with emotion, as all Paul’s words in Scripture that had meant so much to me flooded back, and I knelt tearfully at the altar, thanking God for His servant. That trip became a pilgrimage for me. It was the first time in years I had really felt drawn powerfully to God and to prayer. I admired the beauty and art and history of the Catholic churches I visited, but it didn’t make me seriously consider being Catholic—this was still seven years before I would.

Striving

"Lord, Give Me Eyes to See." (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

“Lord, Give Me Eyes to See.” (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

But my pilgrimage did awaken in me a desire to get back in church and have a renewed relationship with God. I felt very wary of my childhood faith and church—of placing so much emphasis on emotion and experience—so I read and studied and tried to come to an intellectual understanding of various systems of doctrine and reason out for myself what I believed and what church I belonged in. It was a daunting task, not having any firm foundation in theology, and I became frustrated. I eventually resigned myself to the conclusion that each of the various camps had strong arguments for their positions, that Scripture wasn’t clear enough for me to discern, and that I would study and admire the different schools equally and hope God could sort it out. During this time, I visited a lot of different churches, especially Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

My car (may she rest in pieces) versus the dump truck.

After a year of this endeavor of striving in myself to find where I belonged in God, I again grew frustrated. I felt hurt, and rather than running toward God, I again found myself running away. I had once commented, after my years of wandering, that if God really wanted to get my attention, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul. I wished for his lot: I should have been careful what I wished for. While I was on a road trip, just north of Columbus, Ohio, my car was struck on the driver’s side door by a concrete-laden dump truck. I was medflighted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where I was found completely unresponsive, with tests indicating a deep coma or brain death.

It very well might have been the end of the road for me. I was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, the likes of which most patients do not survive, or if they do, most face serious disabilities for the rest of their lives. The doctors offered no prognosis. But my family, my friends, even many people I did not know, surrounded me with their prayers. Against the odds, I recovered. Not only did I recover, but I recovered completely, without lingering deficits, and I recovered remarkably quickly. A mere three weeks after the accident, with broken bones, I returned home to hobble through the semester of school I’d very nearly missed for good.

This near-death experience, though it took some time and some humiliation to realize it, reaffirmed my faith that God had His hand on my life and a plan for me. Swallowing my pride, I returned to church, to the church of my parents I had left so many years before. There God began a period of spiritual recovery, of rebuilding walls that I had torn down. My home church was a safe harbor and sanctuary, for a time. But I felt that it was only a waypoint, that God still was leading me onward to a fuller knowledge of the faith. I continued to visit churches and read about theology. I felt especially drawn to the intellectually rigorous Reformed theological tradition (Calvinism), and even bought myself a handsome leather-bound ESV Study Bible for my thirtieth birthday.

Veritas

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in history, I went to work teaching at Veritas Classical School, a homeschool co-op. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with Calvinism in a way I hadn’t ever been before. Most of the teachers in that school system were strongly Reformed, and in my teacher training I was encouraged to teach history from that doctrinal commitment. I was fascinated by the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition; I enjoyed attending Presbyterian churches and loved the Reformed friends I made; but faced with apprehending and accepting some of the specific tenets of Calvinism—especially belief in an absolute sovereignty of God such that God ordains all things, even evil, and an unconditional election such that some people were created to be damned and had no hope whatsoever for redemption, by God’s sovereign decree—I blanched. Over the long weekend of that training, I was plunged into a deep despair; I resolved that either God was a monster and I had no wish to serve him or that the Calvinist understanding of God must be mistaken. I backed away from that and never seriously considered Calvinism again.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

But while I was at Veritas, I was tasked with teaching medieval history, Christian Latin, and Koine Greek. They were the very things that had brought me so much love for the Early Church and the Church Fathers and the Medieval Catholic Church in the first place, and I filled my lectures with all the sentiment and longing I had ever felt for those things. I affectionately introduced my students to great popes, bishops, abbots, monks; to Church Fathers and theologians and councils; to the rich etymologies of the terms of early and medieval Christianity, and their scriptural foundations; and in teaching all this, I had to study it even more deeply than I had before, and I realized more fully than ever what a firm foundation it all was. At the beginning of the year, I had my students all read the Nicene Creed and affirm the common faith of us all—since among my students were Protestants of all stripes and even a few Catholics.

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

The semester culminated in the Protestant Reformation, which in my view going into teaching it, was a flowering of Christian thought and a reaffirmation of Christian principles. I tried to bring the same glowing passion to the Reformation’s characters as Dr. G had; but in the process of preparing my lessons, I was stunned to discover that the reality of the Reformation was anything but the majesty I had imagined. In addition to the heroic Luther and Calvin, I found numerous other scattered and disparate movements and sects; wide, fundamental disagreement even from the start; and the beginnings of the general factiousness that had been my experience of Christianity all my life. I realized for the first time the stark contrast of this with the glorious Church I had been proclaiming the rest of the year. Dr. G could apparently pull off the duality of presenting both without cognitive dissonance; I could not.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, master of Renaissance polyphony.

While I was immersed in the medieval Church over the course of that year, I discovered Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony, which struck me as something heavenly and transcendent that guided me to a deeper life of prayer and Bible study. I read through the Rule of St. Benedict and the Order of the Mass. I began observing the calendar of saints as a way of remembering great Christians of the past. I even downloaded a Catholic app on my phone and began following the Catholic lectionary as a handy method for organizing my Scripture readings—since, I reasoned, somebody else had already done the work of distributing the Bible throughout the calendar. Through all of this, I denied vehemently that I was becoming Catholic or even interested in becoming Catholic. When the question was raised, and it was, I rattled off rehearsed reasons why the Catholic Church was fallen and apostate, et cetera; why I disagreed with Catholic doctrine; why I wouldn’t have any of it.

The Church That Was Found

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. (Source)

When I went to graduate school the next year, I had no intention at all of becoming Catholic. I made a list of churches to visit in my new town, and the Catholic Church wasn’t one of them. And yet completely by accident I had made a Catholic friend when I visited the campus. When she invited me to Mass, I decided to go. To my amazement, rather than the dryness and empty ritual I had expected, I found a rich, moving spiritual experience that brought me the sense that I was kneeling in communion with Christians of all ages past—and with the Lord. The next week, hungry for more, I went back.

Young Catholic adults

Young Catholic adults, incidentally at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (Source)

After all my years running away from experience as a criterion of faith, it was ultimately my experience of Catholicism that brought me over the threshold. Those weeks of witnessing the Mass, as I exulted in the presence of the Lord, something was happening intellectually that I hardly even realized at the time. All of those reasons I had been reciting against Catholicism were collapsing, as I saw that everything I had ever believed about Catholics was wrong: Catholics do have a very close, a very committed, a very real relationship with Christ; the theology I had dismissed as cold was living and vibrant; the ritual and liturgy was not empty, but every bit of it meaningful and worshipful.

The Mass

It didn’t take me long to realize that the faith and the Church I had always admired so much in the Church Fathers was still there and still alive in the Catholic Church; that the Church still embraced, upheld, stood upon, and celebrated that heritage and foundation. The truths of the faith held by the Fathers, the ancient doctrines they affirmed, were still there and still held true. And I found that so much of what I had always been longing for and searching for was there, even the longings I had never known how to articulate. After a few months of attending Mass weekly, I began attending daily. I admitted at last that I was onto something, and decided to begin the RCIA class when it resumed in the fall.

This is not the end of the story. I had been brought into the antechamber of the Church, but there was still a process of catechesis and formation, dialogue and the occasional dispute, and studying and working through Catholic doctrine, coming to terms with what it meant in light of my experience so far. But it is the end of the beginning, the turning point of my faith journey. Now, four years after entering the Church, I feel a fuller, firmer, and more committed faith, and a deeper understanding, than I ever had before. I don’t look back on my days growing up Protestant with any disdain at all, but with a lot of love and appreciation for the firm foundation it laid, and the road it paved that led me the fullness I have found.

Was Peter the First Pope? A Comprehensive Response

St. Peter

Friends, here’s a very detailed post I’ve been working on, answering as comprehensively as I could, from Scripture and history, a question often asked by Protestants: Was Peter really the first pope? I’ve been working hard on this for a couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy it. If anyone has any further questions or objections, please feel free to throw them at me.

On the so-called “Jerusalem Tomb of St. Peter”

James Tissot, Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept, by James Tissot (1836–1902).

The past few days, since Pope Francis put some of the relics of St. Peter on display, my blog hits have spiked again. A number of news outlets picked up images from my posts on the Tomb of St. Peter in Rome and linked back here. And this topic continues to fascinate the public as it always has (those posts are by far my most popular) — because, I reckon, the public is just fascinated by bones. Especially long-buried bones. Especially mysterious, even controversial bones. And about that controversy: Coming from the camp of the very same anti-Catholics who seek to argue that St. Peter was never in Rome, there is a claim floating around of a supposed tomb of St. Peter discovered in Jerusalem in 1953 which, if known, would undermine the whole foundation of the Catholic Church and expose the Vatican as a fraud, etc.

F. Paul Peterson, author of this tract.

F. Paul Peterson (center), author of this tract.

There’s one problem, though: the claim itself is a fabrication. The linked article is taken from the pages of a 1971 anti-Catholic tract, self-published by one F. Paul Peterson of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and sold from his home. It is poorly written and rife with factual errors (e.g. the Saracens “never made it to Rome”), unfounded accusations, and unsubstantiated claims. In a tract which purports to provide solid evidence of the burial of the Apostle Peter in Jerusalem, the author actually provides little real evidence other than his own testimony that various people, including a number of well known archaeologists and even Pope Pius XII, agree with him regarding his remarkable discovery and its implications. This is little more than a baseless screed like so much of the anti-Catholic literature out there, akin to Chick tracts and even making similar claims. I normally would not waste my time in responding, but for my concern that this web page is among the top hits on Google for the “tomb of St. Peter.” Anti-Catholics will believe anything — but for anyone out there who is honestly seeking answers, I do not want them to be misled.

For anyone who wants to critically examine this claim of a supposed tomb of Peter in Jerusalem, and the claims of the Catholic Church, here are a few points to consider — just a few of the major problems with this article:

  1. The author claims repeatedly that there is “no evidence in either Scripture or history” that Peter was ever in Rome — but clearly either he has not read much history, or he is willfully distorting the truth. I have repeatedly provided evidence, from both Scripture and history. And if one finds Scripture less than explicit, the historical testimony is well documented and compelling.

    In fact, there is a unanimous historical tradition that Peter died and was buried in Rome (from Latin trado, trans + do, “to hand over” or “hand down”) — meaning not something vague and “fickle” as Peterson alleges, but attested fact handed down by generation after generation of writers, dating with certainty to the early second century, in all likelihood to within a few years of Peter’s death — and not by “Roman” writers, but by partisans of the Churches of Antioch (e.g. Ignatius), Alexandria (e.g. Clement), Carthage (e.g. Tertullian), and many other scattered places, who would have had no reason to fabricate facts in Rome’s favor. Meanwhile there is no tradition, no testimony, absolutely none, that Peter remained in Jerusalem following the events of the New Testament and died there; no record or attestation or claim that Peter’s tomb ever existed in Jerusalem until this supposed “discovery” came out of nowhere (and in fact never really went anywhere: Peterson’s tract has no doubt had thousands more readers on the Internet than it ever had in his lifetime). While Christians the world over celebrated the tombs and relics of martyrs scattered all over the Mediterranean world and beyond — in some cases no doubt inventing them — no one ever claimed that Peter was in Jerusalem.

    Peterson makes repeated statements that are manifestly false, but after reading the piece in depth, I do believe the man is genuine — genuinely ignorant and misled. It being the days before the Internet, I can forgive him for not having ready access to facts; but even today, facts do not get in the way of anti-Catholic delusions.

  2. Herein, lies the greatest proof that Peter never was a Pope, and never was in Rome, for if he had been, it would have certainly been proclaimed in the New Testament. History, likewise, would not have been silent on the subject, as they were not silent in the case of the Apostle Paul. Even the Catholic history would have claimed the above as a fact and not as a fickle tradition.1 To omit Peter as being Pope and in Rome (and the Papacy) would be like omitting the Law of Moses or the Prophets or the Acts of the Apostles from the Bible.

    1 N.B. History is not silent and we do claim this as fact. —JTR
  3. He alleges throughout the piece that there has been a conspiracy to “[put] a smoke screen around the truth” that St. Peter is in fact buried in Jerusalem, reaching to the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy, to Pope Pius XII; that there are “secrets” in the Vatican that somehow only he is privy to. He envisions himself as the hero who will bring the “truth” to the world:

    Having succeeded for so long in keeping ‘this thing quiet,’ … they [Catholics] were off guard when a fellow at that time came along who appeared harmless but persistent. Little did they know that this fellow would publish the news everywhere. Their position in the world is shaky enough without this discovery becoming generally known.

  4. Peterson at sepulcher

    Peterson again (right), at the Dominus Flevit necropolis.

  5. He purports to have visited “various renowned archaeologists” to discuss this subject, several of whom he names, and who were indeed renowned archaeologists — William F. Albright (of whom he did not give the full name, only referring to “Dr. Albright of John Hopkins [sic] University”), Nelson Glueck, Józef Milik, Bellarmino Bagatti — each of whom supported and agreed with his unquestionable evidence — and yet none of these renowned archaeologists, in all their well-read and respected works, thought this earth-shattering revelation was worthy of wide publication. Somehow F. Paul Peterson remains the only one who can reveal this news. (He suggests that “Dr. Gluek, being Jewish, is not fully aware … that such a discovery is very embarrassing since it undermines the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church.”)

  6. Usually a Catholic, either because he is brainwashed or stubbornly doesn’t want to see anything against what he has been taught, will not allow himself to believe anything against his religion, much less admit it to others. But there is a growing, healthy attitude among many Catholics, to ‘prove all things, hold fast to that which is good’ as the Master admonished us all.

  7. The latter two archaeologists, Bagatti and Milik, in fact did publish on this matter, Peterson claims. He claims they published a book in Italian, Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, which reveals the truth of the tomb of Peter in Jerusalem. But somehow this academic work published by two renowned archaeologists has escaped the notice of not only the archaeological community, but of the entire world, until it was discovered by one F. Paul Peterson of Fort Wayne, Indiana. And this suppressed, forgotten archaeological publication, in which these archaeologists, according to the author, state unequivocally that St. Peter is buried in Jerusalem, not Rome, is so obscure that several thousand books in the Google Books catalog cite it. And yet somehow everyone who reads and cites this work overlooks this astounding revelation.

    He also cites numerous unnamed priests and archaeologists who agreed with his evidence: a “highly educated priest,” “a brilliant American priest in Rome,” etc.

  8. The secrecy surrounding this case is amazing, yet understandable, since Catholics largely base their faith on the assumption that Peter was their first pope and that he was martyred and buried there.

  9. The claim is that this supposed Jerusalem tomb of Peter was discovered during the excavations of Bagatti and Milik of the ancient Christian necropolis under the Church of Dominus Flevit (“The Lord wept”) on the Mount of Olives (this is the subject of the above mentioned book, per the title). And yet this is now a well-known tourist attraction and site of pilgrimage, and everyone neglects to mention the irrefutable evidence that the Apostle Peter was buried there.

  10. People who lived in Jerusalem all their lives and official guides who are supposed to know every inch of the city, however, knew nothing of this discovery, so well was it withheld from the public.

    Barzillai inscription

    “Clearly and beautifully written.”

  11. The only “solid evidence” which Peterson provides — which “a person who has seen … could never doubt that this truly is the burial place of St. Peter” — is solely that the inscription on an ossuary appeared to read in Aramaic, “Simon bar-Jona.” Yet the names “Simon” (שמעון) and “Jona” (יוֹנָה) or “John” (יוֹחָנָן) are all among the most common Jewish names. Finding a tomb marked “Simon son of Jona” in Jerusalem is no more significant than finding a grave in London marked “John Smith.” That it is an early Christian grave is certainly interesting — because it’s an early Christian grave, not because it is that of Simon Peter.

  12. These figures go along perfectly, as does everything else in the case, with the remains found in the Christian burial ground on the Mount of Olives and in the ossuary on which was ‘clearly and beautifully written,’ Simon Bar Jona in Aramaic.

    Page 83 of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flavit

    Page 83 of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flavit, purportedly describing this ossuary as that of the Apostle Peter (translation below).

  13. In fact, Fr. Bagatti did publish regarding the tomb in question — not in Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, but in an academic journal, Liber Annuus — and it did briefly cause some concern. But rather than shaking the Vatican to its knees, nothing came of the matter. The evidence was considered ambiguous and inconclusive, and not worthy of public attention; certainly it was not “suppressed” or “hidden.” When Milik completed the publication of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, he in fact equivocated on the reading. Nothing in the book makes the bold claim that this was the tomb of the Apostle Peter.

    The author of this webpage, not the same anti-Catholic who wrote the article, has posted some scans of pages from Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit which supposedly prove the claims. But the text says nothing of the sort. In the page purportedly describing the inscription, Milik wrote:

    11. locus 79, ossuary 19. In the upper corner on the long side, confidently sketched using charcoal with very fine features; name (length. cm. 9,5; letters 11 – 0,8 – 1,5), fot. 81 and fig. 22,1):

    . . . שמעון בר [Simeon bar …]

    The reading of the patronym, as luck would have it, is uncertain. The reading proposed in Liber Annuus III, p. 162 (יונה [Jonah]) [this is Bagatti’s article] remains possible, but other possibilities for it can equally be proposed, such as זינה [zinh] correspondent to Ζηνα [Greek Zēna] of n. 21. The two cases of a supposed [Hebrew letter] nun are both a little unusual and the [Hebrew letter] he is rather abnormal although it has an affinity to “Palmyrene”. Alternatively, these last two letters can be considered as a single one, that is, a he with a bifurcated left leg, that would have been inexpertly executed with a piece of charcoal; notice the double feature in the charcoal tracings in fig. 22,7 and 6; fot. 80; LA VII, p. 247, fig. 16. In this case it would have to be read זיה [zih], זוה [zoh], etc.

    The writing is cursive. The [Hebrew Letter] shin was made with charcoal by a single stroke; Another unique feature is the curves of the [Hebrew letter] mem and of [Hebrew Letter] 'ain, like a cross formed from two oblique features; [Hebrew letters] beth + resh is a ligature.

    On the frequency of this name Simeon, see n. 5.

  14. This reading itself has been disputed. A fascinating article by Dr. Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land is available online: “Has St. Peter returned to Jerusalem? The final resting place of Simon Peter and the family of Barzillai.” F. Paul Peterson, it seems, is not the only one to have dredged up such a concoction of this charge. It was also featured in the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, in which a hack archaeologist similarly discovered a tomb in Jerusalem marked with the names of Yeshua, Yosef, Miriam (Jesus, Joseph, Mary) — and made the claim we have all heard by now, despite these three names likewise being among the most common Jewish names. Pfann convincingly argues that the ossuary at Dominus Flevit reads “Simeon bar Zilla” — denoting the family of Barzillai, a “Jerusalem family [with] deep roots within Biblical history.”

If there remained any doubt that this supposed “Jerusalem tomb of Peter” is not the “indisputable proof” that the Catholic Church is a fraud, or that it is what anti-Catholics have claimed it is, I hope I have dispelled it.

Quickly, before I let you go, I wanted to share a few more priceless claims from Peterson’s article:

  1. “Eusebius, one of the most learned men of his time, wrote the Church history up to the year 325 A.D. He said that Peter never was in Rome.1 This Church history was translated by Jerome from the original Greek, but in his translation he added a fantastic story of Peter’s residence in Rome.2 This was a common practice in trying to create credence in their doctrines, using false statements, false letters and falsified history. This is another reason why we cannot rely on tradition, but only on the infallible Word of God.”

    1 N.B. Eusebius states numerous times that Peter was in Rome. —JTR
    2 N.B. The original Greek of Eusebius states that Peter was in Rome. —JTR
  2. “Mark you, all the priests agree that the Vatican and St. Peter’s were built over a pagan cemetery.1 This was a very appropriate place for them to build since, as even Cardinal Newman admitted, there are many pagan practices in the Roman Catholic Church. You realize surely, that Christians would never bury their dead in a pagan cemetery, and you may be very sure that pagans would never allow a Christian to be buried in their cemetery.”

    1 N.B. All cemeteries were pagan cemeteries in first-century Rome, until Christians began to bury in the catacombs in the second or third century. There’s every indication that Peter’s burial in this cemetery, as well as the veneration of the tomb over the cemeteries, was secret and surreptitious. By the time of the cemetery’s destruction and the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cemetery had increasing numbers of Christian burials. —JTR
  3. “Strange it was, for since beginning to build the church in 1450 (finished in 1626)1 they erected, St. Peter’s Tomb (?) under the large dome and Bernini’s serpentine columns. Since then multiplied millions were thereby deceived into believing that the remains of St. Peter were there, which the hierarchy had all along known was not true, as is proven by the late Pope’s [Pius XII’s] declaration.”

    1 N.B. The original St. Peter’s Basilica was begun between 326 and 331. The Church did not suddenly claim in 1450 that Peter was buried on the Vatican under a newly-constructed church. —JTR

I feel rather sorry for Mr. Peterson. Reading his article, I get the sense that he was a good and honest man who sincerely believed (most of) what he was writing. Without a doubt, though, he was stretching the facts quite far in his claims of archaeologists and popes affirming him in his evidence. I sincerely hope this wasn’t him (the only F. Paul Peterson I could find in Indiana).

Biblical Testimony to St. Peter’s Ministry and Death in Rome

(This is a matter I’ve written about before, but not all in one place. And it’s come up in a conversation, so I thought I would put it all together here.)

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (Wikat least viiPaintings.org)

Anti-Catholics often claim that there is no evidence in Scripture that the Apostle Peter died in Rome or even ever went there. After all, wasn’t Peter the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles? What would Peter have been doing in Rome? Nevermind that early first century Rome had a Jewish population of over 7,000, perhaps many more; or that Peter was the first to preach to Gentiles, just as Paul ministered to Jews everywhere he went. And as a matter of fact, there is strong biblical evidence to place Peter in Rome by the close of the events of the New Testament.

She who is at Babylon

First, and most clearly: Peter tells us himself. In the closing of St. Peter’s first epistle, he writes:

By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you that are in Christ (1 Peter 5:12–14)

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings. Who is Peter talking about? Who is she? And how can someone who is in Babylon be sending greetings through Peter? Does that mean Peter is in Babylon? Let’s take this apart.

First of all, the Greek here — as well as an astute reading of the English — gives us a strong hint who she is. “She who is in Babylon, who is likewise chosen” is ἡ ἐν Βαβυλῶνι συνεκλεκτὴ [hē en Babylōni syneklektē]. What does he mean, likewise chosen? Who else is chosen? For the answer, we return to the opening of the letter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those chosen sojourning of the Diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace, may it be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:1–2, my translation)

I gave my own translation, more literal than any published one (so literal as to sound a little awkward, probably), to preserve the order and emphasis of Peter’s words: Peter’s address is to those chosen. The Greek word here is ἐκλεκτόι [eklektoi] — and this mirrors the word from 5:13, συνεκλεκτόι [syneklektoi = syn + eklektoi], also chosen. This word, ἐκλεκτός [eklektos], from ἐκ + λέγω [ek + legō] — it most literally means to choose out. It is the root of our English words elect and eclectic.

Masaccio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucufixion of St. Peter (1426), by Masaccio (WikiPaintings).

We have here what is called an inclusio, a literary envelope by which the opening and closing of the letter bracket the contents. Peter wants to emphasize the fact of being chosen. The people to whom Peter is writing are those chosen by God, and she who is at Babylon is also chosen or elect. Elsewhere in the New Testament the “elect” refers to all Christians (cf. Luke 18:7, Romans 8:33, 2 Timothy 2:10). And in another place, we find a reference to an unnamed “elect lady”: John the Presbyter writes “to the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1) — and sends greetings from “the children of your elect sister” (2 John 13). Who are these elect ladies, if not the Church, sisters in different places?

But the elect lady at Babylon? If Peter is by her side, then he must be in Babylon, too, must he? Ah-ha! say the anti-Catholics. See! It says Peter was in Babylon, not Rome! But was he really in Babylon, the ancient city in Mesopotamia? Probably not. Alexander the Great conquered Babylonia, and the city of Babylon, in 333 B.C. (and died there). Following Alexander’s death, his vast conquests were divided between his leading generals. Seleucus took Babylonia, and founded the Seleucid Empire, with its capital at the newly-founded city of Seleucia. From that time on, the city of Babylon was in decline, until by the first century A.D. it was mere ruins. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 B.C.) attests:

But all these [temple treasures] were later carried off as spoil by the kings of the Persians, while as for the palaces and the other buildings, time has either entirely effaced them or left them in ruins; and in fact of Babylon itself but a small part is inhabited at this time, and most of the area within its walls is given over to agriculture. (The Library of History 2.9.9, ed. by C.H. Oldfather)

Peter would have no reason to be in the literal Babylon. Further, Peter writes as someone under the authority of the emperor (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17), and as one experiencing the thick of Christian persecution (cf. 1 Peter 4:12, “the fiery trial”), when the first major Christian persecutions began in the city of Rome under Nero — and Mesopotamia was not yet under Roman rule in the first century. But if not the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia, where else might “Babylon” be?

The Beast seated on seven mountains

The Revelation of John refers to Babylon:

And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly. But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. … This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while (Revelation 17:3–5, 7, 9–10).

Map of ancient Rome, ca. A.D. 100

Map of Ancient Rome, showing the Seven Hills.

In this, John tells us quite clearly where, at least in his symbolism, Babylon is: A city arrayed in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold and jewels, the mother of earth’s abominations, drunk the blood of the martyrs and saints of Jesus — and seated on seven mountains. One of the traditional marks of the city of Rome is that it was founded on Seven Hills (called in Latin montes, “mountains” — of which, for what it’s worth, the Vatican is not one; the Vatican was outside the walls of ancient Rome). And no other city in the time of the Apostles would have been such a visible image of decadence and extravagance, the capital of a great empire, the seat of fornication and abomination. As the Roman historian Tacitus remarked, it is in Rome “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue” (referring, ironically, to Christianity). No other city in Peter’s day would have been more “drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints” — the author of the first great persecutions under the emperors Nero (which Tacitus wrote to describe).

But what of the “seven kings”? Can this also be understood to refer to Rome? Quite easily. It even supports an earlier dating of the Revelation than some have supposed, perhaps around the time of Peter’s martyrdom. First-century Rome was ruled by emperors, of whom the most aggressive enemy of Christians was Nero. This post is already too long, but I will allow the good Jimmy Akin to present for you compelling evidence identifying these seven kings and the Beast of Revelation: [Part 1] [Part 2]

It will suffice to say for now that there is very good reason for identifying the “Babylon” of Revelation with Rome — as even anti-Catholics do when they suppose that Catholic Church is the “whore.” If this was the attitude toward Rome in the first century, it would have been one with which Peter was well acquainted. Indeed, no other first-century city could have so aptly resembled the ancient Babylon: the capital of the civilized world, and of a great and mighty empire; the center of decadence and extravagance and idolatry. Peter has just informed us, without a doubt, that he is in Rome.

As does my son Mark

Guido Reni, Saint Mark (1621)

Saint Mark (1621), by Guido Reni WikiPaintings).

And so does my son Mark. In Peter’s closing, he also identifies for us two of his companions who are by his side in “Babylon.” Can this shed any light on Peter’s whereabouts?

Scripture mentions this Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, in a number of other places. When Peter was freed from the prison of Herod:

Peter came to himself, and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying (Acts 12:11–12).

So we see an association between Peter and Mark from the earliest days of the Church, attested to in Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, we find Mark accompanying Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s second missionary journey:

The word of God grew and multiplied. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark (Acts 12:24–25).

But as they set out for their next journey, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement over Mark:

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36–40).

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (c. 1433)

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (c. 1433) (WikiPaintings).

Now this is important: Barnabas and Mark leave the scene, and Paul takes on a new companion, Silas — also known as Silvanus (cf. Acts 17:15, 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1).

Paul and Mark later reconciled. We next find Mark as a companion of Paul at the time of his writing the epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon:

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me (Colossians 4:10–11)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23–24)

We find in these letters that Paul is a prisoner. This is his first captivity — in Rome (cf. Acts 28:16).

Scholars date Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, and the authorship of these letters, to the spring of A.D. 61 through the spring of A.D. 63 — which also happens to be the range of dates commonly ascribed to the authorship of the first epistle of Peter. So we have, direct from Paul in Scripture, testimony to the fact that Mark was in Rome. And if Mark was in Rome during that time, and was with Peter when he wrote his letter, then it is reasonable to conclude that Peter was also in Rome.

But what of Silvanus? Scripture makes no mention of him following Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:5) — until we find him by Peter’s side in 1 Peter. But as Silvanus was a constant companion of Paul, it would be reasonable to assume that he at least visited Paul in Rome, if not moved the base of his apostolic operations there. The presence of Silvanus by Peter’s side, too, supports the conclusion that Peter was in Rome.

You will stretch our your hands

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600), by Caravaggio (Wikipedia).

We have one parting testimony to the end of Peter’s life — in the Gospel of John, widely held to have been one of the last-written books of the New Testament — certainly after the death of Peter:

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19)

You will stretch out your hands. In the ancient world — particularly in the Christian tradition — “to stretch out one’s hands” was an almost explicit reference to crucifixion. Indeed, to John the author, this language is meant to be clear to the reader: “This he said to show by what death [Peter] was the glorify God.” Certainly by the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, Peter’s martyrdom had already occurred — so if this were not a true description of Peter’s death (the details of which his readers would have known well), he would not have included it. Further, for Peter’s death to have been by crucifixion, he would have to have been living under Roman rule, since crucifixion was the Roman method of execution: this would not have been the case had he been living in Mesopotamia.

Indeed, the whole tradition of the Church affirms that this was the manner of Peter’s death:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the Apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. . . . Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of Apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John [the Baptist]’s [and] where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics 36, ca. A.D. 180-200)

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. (Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History II.25.5, ca. A.D. 290)

So we see that Scripture is plain in testifying to the ministry and death of Peter in Rome. Even those of a sola scriptura mindset should be satisfied. There is no sense in denying that Peter lived and died in Rome — to which the unanimous voice of the Church Fathers and other early writers of the Church testifies, dating to before the close of the first century, and which findings of archaeology confirm. If anyone would deny the truth of the Catholic Church, they must do so on other grounds than the historical.

Pope St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great, by Francisco Goya (1797)

St. Gregory the Great, by Francisco Goya (1797). (WikiPaintings.org)

I’ve been having a rough time. I meant to post yesterday about Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540–604, r. 590-604)*, one of my most cherished popes and Church Fathers, but alas, my day was waylaid. Yesterday was his feast day — but I shouldn’t be such a perfectionist. It is worthwhile to write about him today or any day, and I am sure he appreciates being honored just as well.

* The Wikipedia article is pretty bad; you might be better off reading the Catholic Encyclopedia article.

There is so much I admire about this man, and so much I could say, but to do him a worthy tribute would require a lot more research and effort than I have time right now. He is called the father of the medieval papacy, for he did more to establish the role of the pope than anybody since Leo the Great. He stands at the juncture between the ancient world and the Middle Ages more clearly than anybody else, as old Rome decayed and passed away and the Church stepped forward to fill the void in the West. Historians know so much about him, and have written so much about him, because he left so much for us to read: over 800 letters documenting his correspondence with bishops and missionaries and kings and emperors all across the known world. He powerfully reasserted the missionary calling of the Church, and dispatched St. Augustine of Canterbury to return the Gospel to the English people, of whom he famously wrote (as recounted by Bede) that the fair-haired Angli (Angles) resembled angeli (angels), when he encountered a group of English boys in a Roman slave market.

Gregory the Great, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1627).

Gregory the Great, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1627). (Wikipedia)

Gregory’s writings reveal him to be a man of passionate faith and a great care for souls, deeply learned but also deeply humble. Born to a wealthy and prominent Roman family, he sold all his family’s goods to benefit the poor and establish monasteries. He himself spent a third of his life in monastic service, and even as pope he maintained an austere mode of life. He is the first pope to stress his position as servus servorum Dei, the “servant of the servants of God,” a title he exemplified, and one so favored by his successor Pope John Paul II of blessed memory. He is the patron of both students and teachers, and very close to my heart.

Below is an excerpt of one of Gregory’s most famous letters, in which he gently rebuffed the Byzantine empress Constantina, who had written to him demanding a relic of St. Paul for a church she had constructed. This letter is important for documenting the veneration of the relics of Saints Peter and Paul in Gregory’s time, and is of particular interest to my research on the tomb of St. Peter. I translated this letter once for my Medieval Latin course; but the below is not my translation.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great (c. 1610), from the workshop of Carlo Saraceni. (Wikipedia)

The Serenity of your Piety, conspicuous for religious zeal and love of holiness, has charged me with your commands to send to you the head of Saint Paul, or some other part of his body, for the church which is being built in honour of the same Saint Paul in the palace. And, being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favour towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin. For the bodies of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul glitter with so great miracles and terrors in their churches that one cannot even go to pray there without great fear. In short, when my predecessor, of blessed memory, was desirous of changing the silver which was over the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, though at a distance of almost fifteen feet from the same body, a sign of no small dreadfulness appeared to him. Nay, I too wished in like manner to amend something not far from the most sacred body of Saint Paul the apostle; and, it being necessary to dig to some depth near his sepulchre, the superintendent of that place found some bones, which were not indeed connected with the same sepulchre; but, inasmuch as he presumed to lift them and transfer them to another place, certain awful signs appeared, and he died suddenly.

Besides all this, when my predecessor, of holy memory, was desiring in like manner to make some improvements not far from the body of Saint Laurence the martyr, it not being known where the venerable body was laid, diggings were made in the course of search, and suddenly his sepulchre was unawares disclosed; and those who were present and working, monks and mansionarii , who saw the body of the same martyr, which they did not indeed presume to touch, all died within ten days, so that none might survive who had seen the holy body of that righteous man. . . .

Who then, most serene lady, can there be so venturesome as, knowing these things, to presume, I do not say to touch their bodies, but even at all to look at them? Such orders therefore having been given me by you, which I could by no means have obeyed, it has not, so far as I find, been of your own motion; but certain men have wished to stir up your Piety against me, so as to withdraw from me (which God forbid) the favour of your good will, and have therefore sought out a point in which I might be found as if disobedient to you. But I trust in Almighty God that your most kind good will is in no way being stolen away from me, and that you will always have with you the power of the holy apostles, whom with all your heart and mind you love, not from their bodily presence, but from their protection.

Moreover, the napkin, which you have likewise ordered to be sent you, is with his body, and so cannot be touched, as his body cannot be approached. But since so religious a desire of my most serene lady ought not to be wholly unsatisfied, I will make haste to transmit to you some portion of the chains which Saint Peter the apostle himself bore on his neck and his hands, from which many miracles are displayed among the people; if at least I should succeed in removing it by filing. For, while many come frequently to seek a blessing from these same chains, in the hope of receiving a little part of the filings, a priest attends with a file, and in the case of some seekers a portion comes off so quickly from these chains that there is no delay: but in the case of other seekers the file is drawn for long over the chains, and yet nothing can be got from them. In the month of June, Indiction 12. (Register of Letters, Book IV, Letter 30)

Of good report

Murillo, Rebecca and Eliezer, 1650

Rebecca and Eliezer (1650), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

I’m having a pretty good day. So I thought I would share a few good things that are going on now.

    The First Hebrew Primer

  • Part of my penance this week is to devote a considerable length of time to spiritual study — a burden on my time but a joy to my soul. And so, in addition to my studies of the daily readings and working my way through the Old Testament, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my Hebrew book, a study that would be of great benefit to my understanding of Scripture. I started working through the book (Simon, Reznikoff, and Motzkin’s The First Hebrew Primer) right before I began grad school, and got through the first few chapters — enough to know the alphabet — before the grad school monster clobbered me. I am reviewing now and planning to advance further, and I’m glad to find that I still have the basic skills I attained before (reading and writing right to left, understanding and writing the alphabet). It’s mentally exhausting, but exciting!

  • Just for the heck of it, I refreshed my memory of the Roman calendar, to date the headings of my Hebrew notebook (it was originally a Latin notebook). Hodie est dies Martis, ante diem XIX Kalendis Septembris, anno Domini MMXII, sive MMDCCLXV ab urbe condita. I should probably pick up the Hebrew calendar now, too.

  • Speaking of Latin: this is a pretty wonderful find on Google Books: A Copious and Critical English-Latin Lexicon (1849), by the Reverends Riddle and Arnold. Ah, I love free, old books, especially when they are as rich a trove as this.

  • Esplorazioni 1

  • Speaking of Rome: I received on interlibrary loan two massive red tomes — not from Rome, from Emory University; but originally from Rome: Esplorazioni sotto la Confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano (1951) — the official report of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican uncovering the tomb of St. Peter. This is it. Contained herein are a wealth of technical descriptions, diagrams, and photographs: this is the primary source on which all the books I’ve read so far are based. One challenge: it’s in Italian. But that will only add to the adventure of exploring the scavi in greater depth and unlocking their mysteries.

    (My desk is never really this neat. I shuffled off the contents just to take these pictures.)

    Below are a few quick snapshots from the books. I hope to be able to share some more highlights in the weeks to come.

    Esplorazioni 2 Esplorazioni 3 Esplorazioni 4
  • Do you like the paintings I post on here? WikiPaintings.org has fast become one of my favorite websites ever. The wiki’s goal is nothing less than to collect and catalog high-resolution images of the works of all the masters; to tag them and document them and share them. I post images from it almost daily. Whoever uploaded the great collection of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is singularly responsible for bringing him, in the course of a few months, from being unknown to me to being one of my favorite painters ever.

  • Ware, The Orthodox Church

  • I’m reading a wonderful book on the Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. I am not very far in (past the Seven Councils), but he is delightfully snooty toward the Roman Catholic Church and toward the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, who don’t count.

All right. There are many other great things to share, but I will save some for tomorrow! Other things to do.

The First Roman Martyrs

Why is it that it’s only when I have a dozen other things I’m supposed to be doing (cleaning my disgusting apartment, doing laundry, revising a history paper for school) that my mind is bursting with blog ideas?

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1883), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, my favorite Orientalist painter. It truly captures the drama and the agony of the first Christian persecutions, and yet the peace before God.

Today is the Feast of the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church, celebrated the day after the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This celebration encompasses the many nameless Christian martyrs who suffered under the persecution of the emperor Nero beginning in A.D. 64 (Peter and Paul both also died under this persecution), as well as many other lesser-known Roman martyrs.

Tacitus

Tacitus.

These persecutions are vividly described in the Annales (Annals) of the Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), one of the first mentions of Christianity in secular literature, written ca. A.D. 116. The context is the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in July 64 (Annales XV. 44, ed. G. P. Goold, trans. John Jackson, for Loeb Classical Library, 1937):

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by [Nero’s] order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment or pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

Saints Peter and Paul: Apostles to the Protestants?

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

Today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, two saints who almost need no introduction: they are the most prominent men, besides Jesus, in the New Testament — Peter, the foremost of the Apostles, on whom Christ said he would found His Church; and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, radically converted on the road to Damascus, and from then on a tireless preacher and writer for Christ. Together, the two became pillars of the Church of Rome, and watered it with the blood of their martyrdoms. Peter especially, hailed by the Roman Catholic Church as the first bishop of Rome, has come to be, for Catholics, a symbol of the authority of the Church. Paul, on the other hand, became a central figure of the Protestant Reformation: his writings on grace and faith and works, against the Judaizers, formed the basis of Martin Luther‘s theological interpretations. A number of Catholics I’ve talked to have seemed to distance themselves from Paul because of this, strangely. To me, though, Peter and Paul are the essential apostles who can bridge both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and even offer hope of the reunion of all Christians.

There was a reflection in Magnificat last night, for the Vigil of Peter and Paul, that gave me a start and inspired this entry for today.

By celebrating the memory of these two great saints together, we remember how valiantly — and humanly — they struggled to bring together into one Church under one Gospel those who were divided by the differing heritage and belief of Jew and Gentile.

Up until the last two words, my mind was somewhere else — on our division today. I was nearly expecting to read of the “differing heritage and belief of Catholic and Protestant.”

St. Paul is my patron saint. As I journeyed to the Church, I pondered who I should choose; but when I prayed about it, I realized that there could be no other choice but Paul. For Paul was choosing me. There is no doubt in my mind at all that Paul has been looking out for me all these years since my youth. Most Protestants turn to Paul for his theology and intellect, but through all my troubles growing up, I turned to Paul for encouragement and comfort.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

When I reached Rome the first time and stood at Paul’s tomb, it was his words of encouragement that came flooding back to me, that brought me to knees and urged me to come face to face with God. And as I approached Rome again, toward the Church, I believe that Paul was praying for me, and welcoming me home.

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13 ESV)

And I truly believe that just as the Protestant Reformers’ interpretations of Paul remain at the heart of our division, a deeper reflection on both Peter and Paul — what they believed, what they wrote, what they stood for, and what they died for — can help heal our breach. “I appeal to you, brothers,” Paul wrote, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” “Is Christ divided?,” he asks us (1 Corinthians 1). Tragically, we ourselves have divided the Body of Christ on earth, and have perpetuated that division for 500 years in the case of the Protestants; for 1,000 in the case of the Orthodox. And we ourselves are to blame for every day that we allow it to continue. Christ wants to return for a whole and spotless Bride. I believe we owe it our Lord, to His Church, and to His Apostles to urgently seek understanding and reconciliation as we near the end of this age.

On this Rock: An Analysis of Matthew 16:18 in the Greek

St. Peter

Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.

One of the Roman Catholic Church’s chief scriptural supports for the authority of St. Peter as the leading Apostle, who would become the bishop of Rome — whom we would eventually refer to as the first pope — is the verses of Matthew 16:17-19:

And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’

This is also a favorite passage of anti-Catholics to pick apart. But with even a basic understanding of the ancient languages, the wordplay that Jesus and the Evangelist were implementing here becomes clear: These verses cannot be interpreted any other way but as an explicit declaration of Peter’s authority. And they never were, until the time of Luther.

Let’s look at the Greek, especially of the critical verse 18 (Greek text from NA27; see also, in English, BibleGateway, Bible.CC, New Advent):

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Now, I don’t expect my readers to have a lot of Greek. If you do, I am delighted — but I’m here to make this as simple as possible. Here it is transliterated into Roman characters:

kagō de soi legō hoti su ei Petros, kai epi tautē tē petra oikodomēsō mou tēn ekklēsian, kai pulai hadou ou katischusousin autēs.

And one more time, all together: this time cribbed so you can understand it.

κἀγὼ [I, emphatically, in response to Peter’s delaration] δέ [and, also, postpositive: together with first word, and I or I also] σοι [2nd person singular dative pronoun, to you] λέγω [(I) say] ὅτι [that] σὺ [2nd person singular nominative pronoun, you, emphatically] εἶ [2nd person singular present active, are] Πέτρος [Peter], καὶ [and] ἐπὶ [preposition on, upon] ταύτῃ [this] τῇ πέτρᾳ [rock] οἰκοδομήσω [first person singular future active I will build, as in building a house] μου [my (lit. of me)] τὴν ἐκκλησίαν [church (lit. a calling out, a meeting, an assembly — but concretely and universally in Christian lit. refers to the Church)], καὶ [and] πύλαι [(the) gates] ἅδου [of hades] οὐ [negative particle, not] κατισχύσουσιν [3rd person plural future active, will overpower] αὐτῆς [it].

Now, the first thing to note about this is that Jesus addresses Peter in the second person singular: that is, he says you and not y’all. The distinction between the second-person singular and plural personal pronouns has died out in modern English; technically, the singular personal pronouns (thou, thy, thee) have died out and been replaced by the plural (ye, your, you). This is why the Southern U.S. y’all will save the English language. But back to the point: Jesus addresses Peter in the singular you — the King James’ Thou art Peter actually preserves the important distinction. So there can be no question that Jesus is speaking to Peter and to Peter alone here; not to all the Apostles; not to all Christians.

Second, and more important: the wordplay. The name “Peter” — Petros in Greek, Petrus in Latin — translates as “Rock.” Jesus is giving Simon a new name, Peter or Rock, in reference to his firmness or steadfastness.

And on this Rock I will build my Church. “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.” That’s the proper way to understand the statement, had it been spoken in English.

Now, the common anti-Catholic refutation of this is thus (first put forward by Luther himself): the Evangelist uses different words in the Greek for Peter and Rock. You are Peter (Πέτρος, Petros) and upon this Rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my Church. Not only are the two words different, but they are different genders — Petros is masculine and petra is feminine — and they have supposedly, according to the Protestant argument, different meanings in Greek. A petros is a small rock or a piece of rock; a petra is the bedrock or a massive rock formation. Therefore clearly, Jesus wasn’t referring to the same rock in both cases, so the argument goes.

There are several reasons why this argument doesn’t work. First of all, the context. Jesus had asked the disciples who they said he was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet? And in one of the most dramatic moments of the Gospel, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And Jesus in turn confesses Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you . . .” The episode would not make any sense if Jesus had said, “I rename you Peter, a steadfast Rock; and on this (other) rock I will build my Church.”

Not only does that not make sense — but Jesus doesn’t say “other” — he says ταύτῃ, this rock. And there doesn’t seem to be any other rock, any petra present. The common Protestant argument is that petra here refers to Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith. But if that were the case, why the wordplay on Peter’s name? Even more so, why the wordplay without any clarification of the ambiguous metaphor? It seems unlike Matthew to let such an ambiguous statement go without explanation, who in other places is careful to provide explanations for the fulfillment of prophecies (Matthew 3), difficult parables (Matthew 13), and foreign words (Matthew 27:46). The reason he doesn’t here is because to Matthew, and to his earliest readers, it wasn’t ambiguous.

In fact, the literary structure of Jesus’s proclamation mirrors Peter’s exactly: “You are the Christ”; “You are Peter.” And Jesus’s other pronouncements here are perhaps even more important, more indicative of Peter’s singular authority, than His pronouncement of Peter as “Rock”. Jesus gives three separate blessings directed to Peter and Peter alone that leave no doubt of His intention to invest Peter specifically with authority:

  1. You (Peter) are “Rock,” and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

  2. I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven [mirroring “the gates of hell”].

  3. Whatever you (Peter) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [linked implicitly to the “keys”].

Further, there is no evidence, beyond the assertion itself, that the meanings of petros and petra are as distinct as Protestants argue. No scholarly lexicon I have consulted, in particular neither the LSJ for Classical Greek nor the BDAG for Koine, supports the definiton of petros as merely a small rock or piece of rock. The words seem, rather, to be nearly synonymous. If there is a distinction between them at all, it is between petra, a great mass of rock, and petros, stone as a monumental building material — for building, say, a Church.

But most important: there are perfectly good reasons why Matthew used two different words here, Petros and petra: this was the only way to compose the statement so that it would make sense in Greek.

  1. Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, not Petra. Why didn’t they call him Petra in Greek? Because Petra is a feminine noun, and Peter is a male. By the time the Gospels were written, Petros had been his Greek name for decades.
  2. Even supposing the Protestant argument about the different meanings of the words petros and petra were true (all evidence is that this is an anti-Catholic invention) — Jesus wouldn’t have said “on this petros I will build my Church,” to make the statement in Greek seem less ambiguous (to us), because that wasn’t what He meant. He meant “I will build my Church on this bedrock,” this unmovable foundation, not this piece of rock.
  3. Greek is an inflected language, meaning that the endings of words change depending on the grammatical function in which they are used. For example, πέτρος (petros), πέτρον (petron), and πετρῷ (petro[i]) are all the very same word. So variations in the endings of words with the same stem seem quite natural to the Greek mind, and the difference between petros and petra would have seemed much less significant than it does to an English-speaker. In fact, this type of wordplay between similar-sounding words, called paronomasia, was common in ancient Greek.
  4. Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek at all. Scholars are pretty certain that in His day-to-day life and teachings, Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels quote Jesus in Aramaic for special dramatic emphasis: “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15.34).
  5. So if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, the words for Peter and RockPetros and petra — would have been the same word: Kepha (כיפא‎).
    “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church,” is what Jesus would have said (pretending that the rest of the sentence is in Aramaic, which I don’t know, and you probably don’t either).
  6. The Aramaic Kepha (כיפא‎) was rendered into Greek as Kephas (Κηφᾶς). Why didn’t Matthew just use that in both cases? Because it would have been as awkward as my sentence above, saying most of the sentence in Greek and a couple of words in Aramaic, and then having to explain it. Matthew’s readers apparently didn’t know Aramaic — or at least, if the book was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic as some of the Church Fathers suggest, whoever translated it into Greek didn’t expect his readers would know Aramaic, and provided a crib for the Aramaic phrases.

To further confirm the Catholic interpretation — it’s not a Catholic interpretation; at least not an invention or reinterpretation of the modern Catholic Church as anti-Catholics charge. This is the way this Scripture has been interpreted since the very earliest biblical commentators:

“. . . I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a Church whose faith has been praised by Paul . . . The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold . . . My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built! This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”

—St. Jerome, To Pope Damasus, Epistle 15:1-2 (A.D. 375)

“Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of Fathers see who has succeeded whom. That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail.”

—St. Augustine, Psalm against the Party of Donatus, 18 (A.D. 393)

“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.”

—Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451)

To me, this makes a rock-solid (that’s petra-solid) case: In this verse, there is no doubt that Jesus is declaring Peter to be the Rock on which He would build his Church. Seeing these words in stone did more to move me to this truth, and toward the Catholic Church, than almost anything else: my banner above is a photograph I took of this same declaration, in Latin, around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, over the high altar and St. Peter’s tomb.

See also: Early Testimonies to St. Peter’s Ministry in Rome

Seeing the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI, greeting the people just after his election was announced.

So when I left off my personal story, I was in Rome, on what became a pilgrimage of sorts: enthralled by the majestic churches, captured by the sense of history, drawn to God and Church for the first time in years.

We visited all four major basilicas of Rome: St. John Lateran; St. Mary Major; St. Paul outside the Walls, where I was powerfully moved at St. Paul’s tomb; and St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s in particular was overwhelming in its size and grandeur. I found the tomb of St. Gregory the Great, who was one of my favorite saints even then; and I’ve already told of my wonderings about St. Peter’s tomb. Some of the other churches we visited included San Clemente, the oldest of any church we saw, whose foundations reached back to the first century; Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where lay interred St. Catherine of Siena; and Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, built in the remains of the Baths of Diocletian. There is far more to tell of my time in Rome, and far more still that I failed to see for my closed spiritual eyes. I long to go back now that I’ve found the Church.

The façade of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

One more anecdote about Rome that I’d like to relate: I saw the pope. As I related briefly before, Pope John Paul II had died only weeks before our trip, and Pope Benedict XVI had succeeded him. Pope Benedict had only just taken possession of St. John Lateran as cathedral of Rome the week of our visit. (Many people don’t realize that St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s, is Rome’s cathedral church.) I was very sad at the passing of Pope John Paul, but I was glad, at least, that he was no longer suffering, and that I might have the chance to see the new pope.

Every Wednesday, the pope holds a General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. A group of my fellow students and I decided to attend. It was an overcast Wednesday morning when we set out, five or six of us, from our hotel — without umbrellas. It wasn’t very long before we regretted that lack of foresight. It came a downpour, and by the time we arrived at St. Peter’s Square and had been sitting there a few minutes waiting, we were soaked to the bone. Gradually the rain slackened to a drizzle, but it was still overcast and unpleasant.

Finally the time came for the pope to appear. He rolled out at one end of the piazza in his pope-mobile, to the cheers of the people greeting their new pontiff. Two giant projection-screen TVs broadcast his arrival for those of us sitting at a distance. He circled the square, waving to the faithful, before coming to the stage erected on the steps of the basilica, and exiting.

The pope stepped out onto the steps, and raised his arms in a blessing. At that moment, the clouds parted. The sun appeared, brightly and warmly. The rain stopped. It was as if God was smiling on this man and on us who had come to hear him.

He spoke for a few minutes. I suppose he was speaking Italian, since I don’t remember what he said. But I felt very glad just to be there, to be standing a mere few yards away from the leader of Western Christendom.

At the end of his address, he said a blessing over the people, and announced that all religious items brought to the square that day were now blessed. I suppose many of the Catholic faithful brought Rosaries, statues, icons, and other devotional objects. I happened to have a Bible in my backpack, a compact NIV my dad had bought for me before I left. It is a religious item, I thought. I considered it ironic that the pope had unknowingly blessed a Protestant translation of the Bible; but I nonetheless considered it meaningful and important. I inscribed the event on the frontispiece of the book, and have cherished it ever since as “the Pope’s Bible.”

As soon as the pope was done speaking and had left the stage, the rain resumed. The clouds returned to cover the sun. I considered it an amusing coincidence, and have often jovially told the story, as I am now — but looking back I see the experience as yet another subtle gesture from God to the authority of this man and this Church — a nod as if to say, I am looking after this foundation. Looking back over the years, through all that I traveled, I consider it no small matter that the pope of Rome prayed for me and said words of blessing over me: At very long last, after seven years, those words have brought me home.