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The Bishops of Rome have been Christianity's most powerful leaders for nearly two millennia, and their influence has extended far beyond the purely spiritual. The popes have played a central role in the history of Europe and the wider world, not only shouldering the spiritual burdens of their ancient office, but also in contending with - and sometimes precipitating - the cultural and political crises of their times. In an acclaimed series of BBC radio broadcasts Eamon Duffy explored the impact of ...
The Bishops of Rome have been Christianity's most powerful leaders for nearly two millennia, and their influence has extended far beyond the purely spiritual. The popes have played a central role in the history of Europe and the wider world, not only shouldering the spiritual burdens of their ancient office, but also in contending with - and sometimes precipitating - the cultural and political crises of their times. In an acclaimed series of BBC radio broadcasts Eamon Duffy explored the impact of ten popes he judged to be among 'the most influential in history'. With this book, readers may now also enjoy Duffy's portraits of ten exceptional men who shook the world.
The book begins with St Peter, the Rock upon whom the Catholic Church was built, and follows with Leo the Great (fifth century), Gregory the Great (sixth century), Gregory VII (eleventh century), Innocent III (thirteenth century), Paul III (sixteenth century), and Pius IX (nineteenth century). Among twentieth-century popes, Duffy examines the lives and contributions of Pius XII, who was elected on the eve of the Second World War, the kindly John XXIII, who captured the world's imagination, and John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. Each of these ten extraordinary individuals, Duffy shows, shaped their own worlds, and in the process, helped to create ours.
In the spring of 1939, as war loomed over Europe, workmen began digging a grave for the recently deceased Pope Pius XI in the crypt of St Peter's basilica in Rome. Three feet below the ancient floor, their spades struck the top of a substantial pagan burial chamber, which turned out to be just one in a whole street of second-century pagan tombs stretching 300 feet east and west, and disappearing directly under the high altar of the church above.
Throughout the Second World War a team of archaeologists laboured in secrecy to excavate this extraordinary street of the dead. Their digging led them at last to a small and nondescript monument wedged into a corner of the cemetery. You can still get permission to see it, but it's not much to look at when you do — about 2 metres high, it is set at an awkward angle into a red wall which once ran along an alleyway between the pagan graves. Imagine a marble fireplace flanked by single pillars and topped with a small gabled structure shaped like a temple — in fact the archaeologists called the whole thing the aedicula, or little temple. It became clear that the first Christian church built on this spot early in the fourth century, by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, had been designed round this aedicula. Constantine's engineers had literally moved a mountain to achieve this. The aedicula stood halfway up the Vatican hillside; the Emperor's men sliced the top off the hill and dumped the spoil — more than a million tons of it — into the valley, creating a level plain. The first St Peter's basilica was then built on top, with the high altar positioned directly over the insignificant little monument. But Constantine had moved more than earth and bricks and mortar, for you could say that not only St Peter's basilica, but the Roman Catholic Church itself is founded on this ancient piece of stonework.
We now know that the aedicula is an early Christian monument, erected about AD 160 to commemorate the crucifixion of St Peter in the nearby Vatican circus, under the Emperor Nero. It is mentioned in the writings of the Roman cleric Gaius who, in a treatise written at the end of the second century, spoke of the monuments to the Apostle Peter at the Vatican and of the Apostle Paul on the Via Ostiensis. 'If you will go to the Vatican', he wrote, 'or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who founded this church.' Gaius believed that these 'trophies' were the graves of the two greatest Apostles, and there is in fact an empty grave directly underneath the aedicula. Scratched into the plasterwork nearby is an ancient graffito in Greek, just two words, Petros eni: Peter is here. The experts are still arguing about the fine detail, but whether the little monument marks the grave of Peter, or simply commemorates his execution near the spot, the aedicula is certainly the most ancient and the most concrete embodiment of the Roman Catholic claim that the leader of the Apostles spent his last years in Rome, that he was martyred there, and that the long line of bishops of Rome, the popes — all 262 of them — are Peter's successors.
Peter, whose original name was Simon Bar Jonah, is one of the dominant figures of the New Testament. He is mentioned first in all the lists of Jesus' Apostles, and acts as their leader and spokesman. He was an impulsive and warm-hearted man whom Jesus renamed 'Kephas' in Greek, 'Petrus' or Peter in Latin, meaning 'the Rock' or 'Rocky', probably a reflection both of his character and of his role as anchor-man for the other disciples. St Matthew's Gospel tells how Peter was the first to recognise Jesus as the Christ or anointed one of God, and how in return he received a special authority from Jesus:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed these things to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven. Matthew 16:1718
Those words became the foundation charter of the Roman Catholic Church, and the special proof-text for papal authority. If you stand in front of the high altar of St Peter's and look up you will see them carved in Latin letters six feet high, all round the base of Michelangelo's great dome, a triumphal canopy spelling out the momentous significance of the little shrine now so far underground.
This is all the more remarkable because Peter betrayed Jesus, just as Judas Iscariot did. The Gospels tell how Peter courageously followed Jesus into the house of the high priest after his arrest, but his courage evaporated when he was challenged by the servants, and he swore three times that he didn't know Jesus. And then the cock crowed, and Peter went out and wept bitterly. The story of Peter's denial of Jesus in the darkness before dawn is too terrible to be anything but the literal truth, but, unlike the story of Judas, it doesn't end in despair and suicide. The last chapter of the Gospel of St John tells how the risen Jesus himself forgave the penitent Peter, and reconfirmed him as leader. Appearing at dawn to the disciples by the shores of the lake, he reversed Peter's dawn betrayal by quizzing him three times, 'Do you love me more than these others do?' When the grieved Apostle replied, 'You know everything, you know I love you', Jesus appointed him chief shepherd of the Christian flock: 'Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.'
And so Peter emerged as the unchallenged leader of the early Christian movement. It was he who preached to the crowds in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost, and it was to him that a miraculous vision was granted, authorising him to baptise the pagan Cornelius, and so to reach out beyond Judaism to all the peoples of the world. And when the newly converted Paul went to Jerusalem to seek guidance from the Apostles, he tells us himself that he spent fifteen days there, consulting mainly with Peter.
So it is all the more remarkable that Peter, after dominating so many of its pages, simply fades out of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles, the nearest thing we have to a contemporary record, devotes most of its first twelve chapters to Peter's activities. Then, quite abruptly, it tells us that after escaping from prison, Peter had 'departed and gone to another place'.
And that's the last we hear of him. The rest of the New Testament offers just two clues to Peter's eventual end: the risen Jesus in Chapter 21 of John's Gospel declares to Peter that in old age 'you will stretch out your arms and another will bind you and take you where you do not want to go', a prediction, John tells us, of the manner of Peter's death — in other words, a reference to the early Christian belief that Peter, like Jesus, died on a cross. And the First Epistle of Peter, which may or may not be based on the Apostle's own teaching, is said to be written from 'Babylon', an early Christian code-name for Rome, where the writer clearly thought that Peter, like Paul, had ended his life.
If the New Testament offers us only hints and coded references to Peter's ultimate fate, however, from the end of the first century onwards a growing stream of early Christian writing makes clear that it was taken for granted that Peter had indeed come to Rome, and that he and Paul had been martyred in Nero's persecution in AD 65. Tradition has it that Paul, who was a Roman citizen, was beheaded with a sword, while Peter died the excruciating death on the cross reserved for slaves and low-class foreigners, and that their martyrdom in Rome established the two men as joint patrons for the Christians there. So the Epistle of St Clement, written to Christians at Corinth on behalf of the Church at Rome around AD 90, refers to Peter and Paul as 'our Apostles'.
There was far more to this than just an interesting fact about historical origins. The highest claim any early Christian community could make for itself was that it had been founded by one of the Apostles. Apostolic teaching and apostolic witness by martyrdom remained as a presence and a power within the communities in which the Apostles had lived and died, shaping their character and development, anchoring them in the witness of the first disciples of Jesus. And almost as soon as a Christian literature begins, we find the Church at Rome claiming, and other churches conceding, that the Christians at Rome had the unique privilege of not one but two Apostles for their founding fathers.
The monument underneath St Peter's is the strongest single piece of evidence we have that the claim was rooted in historical fact, that the Christian community at Rome did indeed preserve the memory of Peter's death and burial among them, recorded not on paper or parchment, but in bricks and mortar in the corner of a pagan graveyard. But if its small scale and poor materials are clues to the social status of most of the first Roman Christians, the aedicula is also the symbolic pivot of a great shift in human history.
The grave of Peter and the beliefs he died for embodied an understanding of religion that was entirely alien to Roman civilisation. For pagan Rome, the worship of the gods was about the handling of power and the management of luck: the gods embodied the energies that dominate human life — war, sex, the elements and the seasons and, perhaps especially in Rome, the State, with its divine emperor and its demand for total loyalty. Worshipping the gods involved not the inner transformation of heart and mind, but the performance of certain prescribed external actions — making a sacrifice, honouring an image. It had almost nothing to do with what we now think of as the heart of religion — morality, the separation of truth from falsehood, the search for the meaning of life. Those were matters for the philosopher, not for the priest or the worshipper. The polytheism of Rome had the inclusiveness of domination, a sort of symbolic scalp-collecting, notching up another people conquered, another religion in the list of cults to which temple space might graciously be allowed — the more the merrier, provided none of it interfered with real life, with the supremacy of Rome and the pursuit of power.
For the monotheism of the Jews the gods were so much poison, the subjugation of humanity to its basest instincts, the worship of sex, beauty, luck, irrationality, power and all the other forces that distract, torment and enslave us. The God of Israel was not some tribal mascot demanding blood, but the wisdom that had made the universe, the power of good and evil that underlay all moral action, the embodiment of the justice and compassion that made human life bearable. These were powerfully attractive ideas, and Judaism did draw converts, but its unbreakable links to Jewish history and Jewish identity prevented it from becoming a truly missionary religion. By parting company with the synagogues that had sheltered it, Christianity shed that restriction. The notion of the one and only God who is the antithesis and annihilation of all the gods had taken shape within Israel, within a single people's history: Christianity was the vehicle that took that wisdom to the world. It invited men and women of every race and colour to a new and deeper understanding of religion, the worship of a God of goodness, rationality, truth and self-sacrificial love.
By the time of Peter's death, his colleague Paul was groping his way towards a theology that spelled out the identification of that God of goodness, rationality, truth and compassion with the wandering rabbi Jesus, with whom Peter had walked the roads of Palestine, and whom he had loved, and denied, and loved again. The location of those mighty abstractions within a single human life, vividly recorded in the Gospels and profoundly reflected on by thinkers like Paul, was an idea whose moment was come. In the centuries that followed it would capture the imagination of a world sick of the grotesque antics and inhuman demands of the gods, a world hungry for light and hope and mercy where death and darkness and amoral power seemed always triumphant. The Christian faith in Nero's reign, when Peter was crucified, looked like yet another tribal absurdity, but it was destined to banish the superstitions, to shake down the walls of pagan Rome itself and to rebuild them in the service of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. At the shrine of Peter in the red wall under the Vatican we stand at a threshold, one of those rare fault lines opening out between one age of the world and the next.
Rome lies at the heart of Roman Catholicism. Not just the city itself, the ancient capital of the world and the residence of the popes, but the Rome of the imagination, the spiritual centre to which all roads lead. Roman Catholicism is the largest of all Christian churches, and so Rome is in some sense the spiritual home of more than a billion Christians, scattered across the globe.
Given the origins of Christianity, this religious centrality of Rome is a very surprising development. Not only did Jesus never set foot there, but he was crucified by a Roman imperial army of occupation. In the First Epistle of St Peter and in the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, Rome features under the code-name 'Babylon' as the great whore, the idolatrous murderer of the saints. Peter himself was one of the saints whom Rome murdered, along with his colleague Paul. Their graves there might easily have become a standing witness to the incompatibility between the pagan Empire and the followers of Jesus. Instead, they became the foundation stones of a Rome reshaped and re-imagined as a Christian Holy City.
Leo the Great, Pope from 440 to 461, was the key figure in this transformation. The Emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity early in the fourth century, hoping its strong religious and moral teaching would be an ideological glue to bind together the scattered people of an empire stretching from Britain in the west to Syria in the east. Constantine himself abandoned the city of Rome and moved the capital of Empire to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, on the Black Sea, but over the next century or so the bishops of Rome, the popes, became the city's most important citizens, leading the way in reshaping it as the capital of the emerging Christian world. Wealthy citizens were buried in stone coffins decorated with bible stories instead of scenes from pagan mythology. Church buildings invaded the ancient pagan civic spaces, the praises of the martyrs recorded on them using the monumental script once used to celebrate the victories of emperors and armies. Their mosaics portrayed the Apostles as senators in togas; Christ was depicted with the features and attributes of Apollo or Jupiter. The most brilliant scholar of the fourth century, St Jerome, was commissioned to produce a new translation of the bible in up-to-date Latin, so that God and his holy Apostles could speak out plainly, as Romans to the Romans.
But all this might have remained a matter of mere surface and presentation, an oriental religion got up in Roman dress, if Leo the Great had not developed a distinctively Roman theology, an account of why Rome mattered that made sense in specifically Christian terms.
Leo had been elected Pope after proving himself as a brilliant ecclesiastical administrator and diplomat, but he was far more than a pious bureaucrat. He emerged as a great preacher in sermons for the feast days that had replaced the old pagan festivals, above all at the midsummer feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on 29 June. In them, Leo gathered together the ideas about the meaning of history and of Rome itself which had been evolving for more than a century, and welded them into a powerful new theology.
Excerpted from TEN POPES WHO SHOOK THE WORLD by EAMON DUFFY Copyright © 2011 by Eamon Duffy. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 28, 2012
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