Home > Archives > 03 - 2005 > Peter and the stones of the Eternal City
from issue no. 03 - 2005

But is Rome at the center of the world?

Peter and the stones of the Eternal City

A thought from the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture

by Cardinal Paul Poupard

Cardinal Paul Poupard

Cardinal Paul Poupard

I don’t know whether it’s impertinent to ask: «Is Rome at the center of the world?». But I do know that there are many pertinent ways of answering. As for me, I would start from a statement made by Madame Swetchine, the friend of Lacordaire, he himself a friend of a now rather forgotten French priest, the Abbé Louis Bautain.

Let us hear Madame Swetchine: «Rome is the queen of cities, it is a world absolutely different from everything that we have met elsewhere; its beauties and its contrasts are of such elevated order that nothing prepares us for them, nothing could foreshadow nor foresee the effect. Here ideas become great, here feelings become more religious, the heart quietens. All the periods of history are co-present, separate and distinct, and it seems as if each intended to fix its own character on its monuments, have a horizon that is its own, and so to speak, a particular atmosphere… Is beauty not perhaps eternal as truth? What a close bond therefore between religion and art!» And the convert from Orthodoxy resurfaces when she makes this affirmation: «One of the proofs of the truth of Catholicism is that it answers so well to the exclusive nature of our heart. The other Churches aim to simplify religion, to make it more accessible, more acceptable, extending to every communion the promises made by its divine Author, and it is a most odd disavowal of our genuine needs. The more a rule is positive, exclusive, austere, demanding, the more attractive it is for us, thanks to that vague instinct that let’s us glimpse how much our changeability needs to be confined, our weakness to be underpinned, our thought led back and given direction. Nobody will ever become impassioned about a religion that says that the others are equivalent, and the jealous God well knew so. From the moment in which a thing is not, I don’t say merely the best, but the solely completely good, why choose, prefer, concentrate oneself, and not let one’s homage and love fragment?».
These words of Madame Swetchine, found almost by chance, led me to reread the pages that I, with the fervor of the young Roman I then was, offered the readers of La vie spirituelle in November 1961, on Lacordaire, Bautain and Madame Swetchine. At the center of them was Rome, where the Abbé Bautain, a philosopher from Strasbourg, was denounced by his bishop for fideism.
Lacordaire wrote him, on 1 February 1838: «A condemnation by Rome remains in history for ever, its infallibility guarantees its eternal destiny. Whereas condemnation by a bishop doesn’t have the same destiny, nor the same weight…». He said this of Monsignor le Pappe Trévern to his female correspondent: «The elderly bishop of Strasbourg is apparently an exaggerated Gallican, very much less struck by what there is of false in Bautain than by what there is of true… No one values purity of doctrine more than myself and I would say that I become more jealous of it each day, for myself; but charity in considering doctrines is the absolutely necessary counterweight to theological inflexibility. One acts as true Christians if one seeks the truth and not the error in a doctrine, and to the last drop of blood one makes the effort to find it, as one plucks a rose amid thorns. He who lumps everything together in a man’s thinking, of a sincere man, is a pharisee, the only race of men that were cursed by Jesus Christ. Is there perhaps a Father of the Church who doesn’t have opinions and also errors? Will we throw their writings out the window so that the ocean of truth is purer? The man that fights for God is a sacred being, and up to the day of a manifest condemnation we must consider his thinking with a friendly spirit».
And on 1 February 1840, in another letter to his female correspondent, Lacordaire adds: «In 1838, when I was in Metz, I was told that they were trying to send him to Rome, the last refuge of those who make mistakes against the harshness of those who never make mistakes… I convinced him to go to Rome. He went, was well received, returned spellbound by Rome…»1.
A long time ago I published the Journal romain de l’abbé Louis Bautain (1838) (The 1838 Roman diary of the Abbé Bautain) dealing with that now forgotten story. I decided to speak of it again, something I did in my Rome-Pèlerinage2, because for so many pilgrims of the past and of today the pilgrimage to Rome is above all praying in Saint Peter’s Basilica, in a passage of faith toward the living magisterium of the Church which, according to the promises made by Christ to Peter, continues in the person of his successor, the pope. One grace of the pilgrimage in Rome is renewed adherence to Peter, whose successor remains guarantor of the truth of the Gospel, amidst the confusion of the century.
On the very evening of his arrival Bautain wrote in his diary, 28 February 1838: «Finally we left… I was very impatient to see the great city appear, despite the fact that the fatigue of the past night and of the previous ones had prostrated us; suddenly, on top of a rise, the coachman shouted to us pointing with his whip: “Rome!” We saw, in the morning haze, the dome of Saint Peter’s and in a moment it made appear to our eyes all of Rome, ancient and modern, Rome master of the world, both for strength and for spirit. We had to climb and descend no few dips, after that apparition, and at last we saw from close up Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, and it was the first thing of Rome we saw entering by the Civitavecchia gate that lies behind, so that it seems one is entering the Vatican itself. So what we have seen of Rome, from the beginning, has been what we solely came to seek for, that is Saint Peter’s and the Vatican»3.

It is the whole City that is the homeland of Catholic believers, and also of many Christians, for more than two thousand years. Time, that elsewhere melts into history, here roots itself in duration. On a pilgrimage to a place where the Virgin Mary or a saint has appeared, the continuity consists only in fidelity to the message whereas Rome affirms itself in the time that it has filled with its presence and its deeds...
So, it seems to me, the answer to the question: «Is Rome at the center of the world?» becomes clear. Because the word “center” can be taken in many senses: center of attraction or center of irradiation?
If it is taken as center of attraction or of irradiation, in the world, one needs to know if one is thinking of the pope or of the Curia. We know that the two things do not overlap, the latter is at the service of the former. One must on the other hand distinguish the religious aspect, the moral aspect and the political aspect of things. The answer will change according to one aspect or another.
If one looks at what is known as public opinion and strives in consequence to judge public opinion in the light of what the Church thinks of itself, it seems to me one is in the presence of two equally false conceptions of Rome and of the Holy See. One conception tends to unduly minimize the role of Rome as center of attraction or irradiation by considering it a simple Church among others. In opposition to this minimizing conception, there is another that tends to exaggerate, in a certain sense, its role, by assimilating it more or less formally to a “power”, ignoring what the Church said of itself at the Council in terms of religious freedom4.
It seems to me that Rome, and it is its rightful vocation, would like to be considered chief witness – and the Church through it – as witness to Christ living, dead and risen again, the witness qualified as no other on the basis of the mission given to Peter by Christ. This witness has in Rome an extraordinarily authentic expression for those who believe and also for some of those who don’t believe. Rome, then, as center of the Church, can and must accept that it has universal and missionary responsibility, whatever the inborn weakness in any human collaboration in the work of God.

It seems to me that this is the vocation of Rome, something that in some way explains the fascination of Rome. Because the city of Rome after two millennia exerts a real fascination throughout the world, to the extent that it was able to call itself “the City” tout court: “the Urbs”. It is to the city and the world, Urbi et orbi, that the Holy Father gives his solemn blessing from the loggia of Saint Peter’s basilica, overlooking the marvellous square that bears the name of the apostle founder. Tele-viewers never tire of looking at it, hoping some day to make the pilgrimage to Rome. Because if all roads lead to Rome, it is even more true to add, today, that they bring here the dazzled traveller, the pilgrim desirous of following in the footsteps of the apostles, of praying in the great basilicas, of sharing in the fervor of a variegated crowd, whose faith revives when singing the Catholic Credo with the successor of Peter.
Unquenchable Rome! She was able to call herself capital of civilization and law, of art and history. Rome of the stones and the centuries inextricably interwoven, underground Rome of the catacombs, Rome built on the burial place of Peter unearthed in the Vatican, built on the martyrdom of the apostles, but also on the ruins of pagan temples and ancient cities, modern Rome finally, full of the rustle of countless memories and the noise of the thoroughfares, or the narrow alleys of Trastevere, Rome of the churches and monasteries, Rome of the universities and colleges, Rome of the pilgrims, with the crowd, week after week, treading the parvis of Saint Peter’s, under the windows of the pope.
As John Paul II said on 25 April 1979, on the anniversary of the founding of Rome, the date does not mark only the beginning of a sequence of human generations that have inhabited the city. It is also a beginning for nations and distant peoples that know they have a particular bond of unity with what is deepest in the Latin cultural tradition.
The apostles of the Gospel, and firstly Peter of Galilee and Paul of Tarsus, came to Rome and there established the Church. That was how the See of the successors of Peter, of the bishops of Rome, came to exist in the capital city of the ancient world. What was Christian rooted itself in what was pagan, and after developing in the Roman humus, began to grow with new strength. Here the successor of Peter is heir to that universal mission that Providence has inscribed in the book of the history of the Eternal City.

Queen of the history, feast of the arts, delight of the eyes and joy of the heart, Rome is for the pilgrim the living and visible center of the unity of the Catholic Church, made fertile by the martyrdom of the apostles, irrigated by centuries of faith, illuminated by the presence of Peter’s successor. You who may arrive from the airport of Fiumicino, from Termini station or from the Autostrada del Sole full of cars, you will have the same concern in you, you will burn with the same ardent desire: to see Saint Peter’s and the Holy Father. For the pilgrim who comes to Rome in fact the message of the stones links itself with the faces of the present of God, in a living testimony of faith. He does not only visit celebrated places imbued with millennial history, but takes his place in a crowd of witnesses, and sets his steps, along with his contemporaries from all over the world, in the tracks of those who, over the ages, have preceded him. Living continuity in time and space, the Church that the Christians form stands in Rome in an age-long chain.
Members of so many communities scattered among the peoples, the Christians at once discover in Rome their deep unity as people of God gathered around the tomb of Peter and around his living successor in the Vatican. The enormous capital of the ancient world in fact was chosen by the apostles because they wanted to establish the Gospel in the very heart of the Empire. Come to Rome to proclaim there the faith in Christ risen, Peter and Paul found death there. Their martyrdom rooted the Church there. According to the old saying: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. And from the early centuries the Christians, driven by an uncontainable emotion, have set off for the tombs of the holy apostles, to profess their faith here, in living continuity with their fathers and in close union with the bishop of Rome.

A glimpse of the Capitoline among domes and bell towers

A glimpse of the Capitoline among domes and bell towers

Rome as pilgrimage is in no way a foreign land where one goes for an ephemeral visit, decided in haste and immediately forgotten. Nor is it even a circumscribed sanctuary, limited to a distant apparition. It is the whole City that is the homeland of Catholic believers, and also of many Christians, for more than two thousand years. Time, that elsewhere melts into history, here roots itself in duration. On a pilgrimage to a place where the Virgin Mary or a saint has appeared, the continuity consists only in fidelity to the message, whereas Rome affirms itself in the time that it has filled with its presence and its deeds. Peter and Paul, martyrs, are buried here. Two basilicas rise over their tombs. The catacombs preserve the traces of the living and the dead of the early centuries. But the pilgrims do not limit themselves to visiting places. In Rome they encounter the Vicar of Christ, successor of Peter. Between Peter and the stones there is no antagonism, there is complementarity.
What are you in Rome for? A pilgrimage to the basilicas? Or to see the pope? Because to say “or”, when clearly it is a matter of an “and” that one must say and do! This is the singularity of Rome as pilgrimage: places and men that cannot be separated, because everything unites them. The pilgrim goes toward Saint Peter’s Square to pray in Saint Peter’s Basilica and to see the Holy Father. Videre Petrum: this ancient exclamation of faith springs from the depths of the centuries, it is the believing passage that unites Peter to John Paul II, the one and the other, the one after the other recipients of the unexampled promise of Christ: «You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church». It is truly a passage of faith, animated by the certainty that dwells in the poet: «And we have fallen into the net of Peter. Because it is Jesus who had cast it for us» (Charles Péguy).

Peter came to Rome. He was its first bishop. And after his death the bishop of Rome succeeds him in his office of pastor, responsible in the first degree for the College of bishops of which he is the first: keystone – and they are the arch – of the Church spread over time and space, spread to the four corners of the universe, marching toward the eternal country. City of God at the heart of the city of men, of whom it aims to be the soul, the Church of Jesus Christ is in no way a featureless conglomerate but a structured organism. Its visible structures herald the invisible and essential spiritual tracery of grace, of which the Lord is the fount and the Spirit the channel. Firmly mixed in with his brothers of every race and every tongue, the pilgrim visiting Rome gets in this city a clearer awareness that he is moving from time toward eternity. Because eternity has already left its traces. Time may even destroy the stones over the course of centuries, Peter, he is always alive, from Simon of Galilee to Karol of Krakow, he himself come from far away, the better to take us far, in the ship of the Church, with the wind of the Spirit.
The pilgrim who visits the material buildings, sign and container of a spiritual reality, does not approach them as a tourist comes upon a work of art. He is a believer who walks in the footsteps on those of generations who have gone before, from whom he has received, together with the church where he comes to pray, the faith that animates his prayer. This is why the heart of the pilgrimage to Rome is the encounter and the blessing received from the successor of Peter. It is the grace proper to the audience in which every Wednesday the Holy Father addresses the pilgrims, as witness to the faith and authorized interpreter of the Gospel, so also the grace of the recital with them, each Sunday, of the Angelus.
The vocation of Rome is to confirm them in the faith that they live on all the roads of the Church and the world, in the midst of men, on all the streets that are the streets of Christ, according to the fine image of John Paul II in his first encyclical Redemptor hominis.
How can one not think that among all those streets Rome is privileged, thanks to the continuity of a tradition of which the City is depositary. The successor of Peter is not a mythical flying saucer fallen from the sky of Poland onto the shores of the Tiber. He is not a new Melchisedek, with no father nor mother nor genealogy. As his name makes clear, he is a successor. His person is identified with his function… That, heir to the Gospel and marked by the weight of the history, is inscribed in the two millennia that have filled the city of Rome, raising its becoming in the city of men to the destiny of City of God. Incarnate Church, the Church of Rome is not spotless, it is not hard and pure like a utopia, whose only real quality would be that of not existing. Instead it exists, with its features marked strongly by time and space, by men and their stone constructions. Thus, the vocation of Rome is the incarnation of the faith, with the apostles Peter and Paul and the millions of believers who have come to pray at their tombs and to drink deep of the faith.
As John Paul II said on 4 July 1979, after celebrating the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul for the first time in Rome: «How eloquent is the altar, at the center of the basilica, on which the successor of Peter celebrates the Eucharist thinking that it is so near to the altar on which Peter made, on the cross, the sacrifice of his life in union with that, on Calvary, of Christ crucified and risen again».

In the face of so many accumulated treasures there is no lack of criticism from people scandalized by the commissioned wealth of art, while there is so much poverty that cries out for vengeance. One cannot rewrite history, and today we have difficulty understanding the behavior of the popes of the Renaissance. Paul VI, dedicating the audience hall, the Sala Nervi, on 30 June 1971, declared that it «does not express any pride in monuments or decorative vanity, but that the daring proper to the Christian art is that of expressing itself in grand and majestic terms». But also much earlier, when he was substitute at the Secretariat of State, Monsignor Montini expressed himself in these terms, that I dedicate, forty years after, to the pilgrims of today: «Fascination, reverence, awe or simple curiosity, or again cautious diffidence guide the footsteps of the modern wayfarer unable to avoid the obligatory visit and who feels, within himself, the need to look and understand».
To look and understand: perhaps here lies the psychological difference between a visit to Vatican City and one to some other great monument of antiquity, the Roman Forum, the Pyramids, the Parthe­non, the ruins of Nineveh or of the civilization of the Incas. It is sufficient to look at them; here one needs also to understand. Because here there is something undefinably present, something that summons to reflection, that demands an encounter, that imposes an inner effort, a spiritual synthesis.
Because the Vatican is not only a set of monumental buildings that can interest the artist; nor only a magnificent emblem of past centuries that can interest the historian; not only a brimming treasure-house of bibliographical and archaeological riches that can interest the erudite; nor the museum known for its sublime masterpieces that can interest the tourist; nor only, finally, the sacred sanctuary of the martyrdom of the apostle Peter that can interest the believer. The Vatican is not only the past; it is the dwelling of the pope, of an authority ever living and active».

Like the voice of Christ on the stormy waters of the lake of Tiberias, that of his Vicar John Paul II resounds with power and routs the old slogans as it does the new ideologies: «Be not afraid, open, open wide the doors to Christ. To his power that saves, open the frontiers of States, economic and political systems, the immense terrain of culture, of civilization, of development. Be not afraid… Let Christ speak to mankind. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life».
This is the message of Rome, extraordinary crossroads of peoples and civilizations. Peter was not afraid, Paul also, to come here to plant the cross in the heart of that unified and powerful Empire. Political and linguistic unity, administrative centralization were to be, from Rome, winning cards for the spread of the Gospel out of the capital city of the ancient world. Precisely when it was about to be erased from history, this made it the Eternal City. After the decline of the Empire of the West and the split with the Empire of the East, fearlessly Rome joined the new Europe that was laboriously arising. In the year 800 the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor of the West. After the storm of the saeculum ferreum, Rome became the heart of Catholic defense against the break-up of the heresies. The glitter of the Baroque attests here in a quite particular way the joy of the faith after the storm, the joy of the faith and the joy of life, that are a single thing. Enabling us to discover these successive stages of an art always in symbiosis with its time, is not perhaps the lesson of Rome that of consolidating in us the sense of the universal, of reminding us of our Catholic vocation?
Rome has always been successful in absorbing. The Christian community thrived there for three centuries speaking Greek, and it was to be the same later with Latin. It was to celebrate well in the private houses of its origins as it was to in the great basilicas of Constantine. «Where do you gather?» Justinus was asked. And the Christian philosopher simply answered: «Where one can».
This is the lesson of Rome. It is not from the outside but from the inside that the world and society are converted. The Christians drew their customs from it without problems, if there was nothing reprehensible about them. The Christians of Rome also adopted for their places of worship the model of the pagan basilicas. And one can find a depiction of the sun god in the mosaic that decorates the ceiling of a cubiculum, Christian though it was, since the scene of Jonah adorns one of its walls. At Santa Prisca and at Santo Stefano Rotondo the church is cut out of the interior of a pre-existing mithreum, while under San Clemente one can see that the 4th century Christian church is next to a private mithreum. Later the remains of antiquity were to adorn the Christian sanctuaries and decorate their entrances: marble columns from pagan temples become supports for Christian churches, Egyptian obelisks topped by the cross of Christ.

... Peter and Paul, martyrs, are buried here. Two basilicas rise over their tombs. The catacombs preserve the traces of the living and the dead of the early centuries. But the pilgrims do not limit themselves to visiting places. In Rome they encounter the Vicar of Christ, successor of Peter. Between Peter and the stones there is no antagonism, there is complementarity...
Rome, with the first apostles Peter and Paul, then with Ignatius, Justinus, Ptolemy, Lucius, the patrician Apollonius, and many whose names are unknown, became a living martyrology. In the city that was the epicenter of the world, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of Christians. The exalted community of the Romans, already attractive for the apostle Paul, became a new holy land, marked by the blood of the martyrs. «Presiding in charity and brotherhood», as Ignatius wrote in his epistle to the Romans, it radiated its light throughout the Empire.
It was the cult of the martyrs in fact that created pilgrimage and contributed to make Rome a holy city that progressively became organized to receive pilgrims and make the martyrs a cult worthy of their fame. Saint Jerome wrote: «Where as in Rome do people hasten to churches and to the tombs of the martyrs with such zeal and in such numbers? We must praise the faith of the Roman people». And Saint Ambrose describes the feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrated on 29 June: «Packed armies walk the streets of a very large city. On three different roads (to the Vatican, on the Via Ostiense and on the Via Appia) the feast of the holy martyrs is celebrated. It looks as if the whole world were coming».
At the beginning of the 5th century Prudentius wrote: «Long processions come out of the Alban gate that form white lines in the countryside. The inhabitants of the Abruzzi and the farmer from Etruria arrive together. Behold the fierce Samnite, the inhabitant of the proud Capua. Behold also the people of Nola» … Nola, of which bishop Paulinus wrote: «So, Nola, you make yourself all beautiful in the image of Rome». The writer bishop also made the pilgrimage at least once a year for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Pilgrimage to Rome is first of all a traditional obligation for all bishops. The Council of Rome, in 743, under pope Zacharias, already mentions the visit ad limina apostolorum as traditional, and renews the obligation for it. After centuries in which the custom had grown weak, Sixtus V, with the apostolic constitution Romanus pontifex of 20 December 1585, renewed the obligation for it and established its frequency. Every bishop now has a double obligation: to go to venerate the tombs of the holy apostles and inform the pope of the situation in his diocese.
In the Angelus of 9 September 1979 John Paul II explained to the pilgrims the meaning of these ad limina visits: «On this occasion of our common prayer, the midday Angelus, I want today to refer to the very ancient tradition of the visit to the See of the Apostles, ad limina apostolorum. Among all the pilgrims that come to Rome to show their fidelity to this tradition, the bishops of the whole world deserve special mention. Because through their visit to the See of the Apostles they express the bond with Peter that unites the Church all over the earth. Coming every five years to Rome, they bring here, in a certain sense, all the Churches, that is the dioceses that, through their episcopal office and at the same time through the union with the See of Peter, preserve themselves in the Catholic communion of the universal Church. Together with their visit to the Apostolic See the bishops also bring to Rome news on the life of the Churches of which they are the pastors, on the progress of the work of evangelization, on the joys and difficulties of the men and peoples among whom they perform their mission».
The pilgrims have a double purpose: to see the pope and to go to pray in the great churches and basilicas, and above all in Saint Peter’s. Built at great expense, the largest basilica in Christendom is witness to a long commitment and of a rare perseverance, in honor of Peter and, together, of his successors. The Basilica of Saint Peter is at once the symbol of the faith in the mission entrusted by Christ to Peter and of the veneration of all Christians, pastors and faithful, for his successor, the bishop of Rome. Obedience and respect join in single homage to the fisherman of Galilee and to the Pope of Rome, whose function, rooted in the tomb of the apostle, radiates, like the glory of Bernini, on all of Christianity.

Roma is a magnet also because of the saints. Not only the founders of religious orders, but also the saints of the people, the most popular, like Benoit Labre. A seminarian, a Carthusian, then Trappist at Sept-Fons, he came to Rome around 1771 to pray and there remained, a tramp and beggar. The miracle of Rome! This city, whose luxury and power had been scourged by Saint Bernard with words of fire and whose courtly vanity had been criticized by Joachim de Bellay, understood without hesitation that lice-ridden vagrant, admired him and loved him in his silent poverty and in his hieratic prayer. When his death was announced on 16 April 1783 the whole city poured into Santa Maria ai Monti. They cut up his rags to make relics. His funeral, on Easter Sunday, was a triumph. The troops guarding the church were swept away by the crowd.
Then, in the 19th century, there was a constant urge to go to Rome throughout Christendom, especially in France, where Gallicanism was slowly changing into Ultramontanism. The Revolution had persecuted the Church. Napoleon had humiliated the pope. But the humiliated father, in Claudel’s fine words, became the object of intense veneration. Compared to the successive collapses of more solid regimes, the papacy and Rome seemed the steadfast rock on which to rest in the storm. The adventure of the pilgrims of liberty with Lamennais is well known. Many others, less famous, came as pilgrims to Rome and drew from it, with renewed love of the Church, a deep conviction, the same one as in «You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church».
Pilgrims, though very different in their psychology and tendencies, but having the same urge, such as Dom Guéranger, the Benedictine renewer of Solesmes in France, and Lacordaire, who re-established there the Order of Preachers. We know the celebrated portrait of Théodore Chassériau showing him on the day after his religious profession on 12 April 1840, in the Roman cloister of Santa Sabina. Or also like Teresa of Lisieux and Charles de Foucauld, the «two beacons that the hand of God lit on the threshold of the atomic century», in the acute words of Father Congar.

Closer to us, Madeleine Delbrêl, a convert from atheism and witness of the love of God in the heart of the city of Ivry. A pagan and Marxist, one day in May 1952 she felt the pressing need to come to Rome to pray at the tomb of Saint Peter. It was objected to her that the thing cost a bit more than an hour’s prayer. She told her sceptical group that she would go if the price of the journey came to her in unexpected form… Something that happened, in the shape of a winning ticket in the national lottery offered her by a Latin American friend! At the cost of two days and two nights on the train, she spent her day of twelve hours in prayer in Saint Peter’s: «In front of the papal altar and at the tomb of Saint Peter, I prayed from the depth of my heart… and above all to lose my heart. I didn’t mediate nor ask for “light”, I wasn’t there for that. Yet so many things imposed on me and remain in me. First and foremost: Jesus said to Peter: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”. He had to become a rock and the Church had to be built. Jesus who spoke so much of the power of the Spirit, of its vitality, when he spoke of the Church he said that he would build it on that man who was to become like a rock. It was Christ who thought that the Church is not only something living, but something to be built. Secondly: I discovered the bishops… During my trip, and in Rome, I discovered the immense importance of the bishops in the faith and in the life of the Church. “I will make you fishers of men”. It seemed to me that faced by what we call authority we behave at times like fetishists, at times like liberals. We are under the regime of authorizations, not of authority. When people speak of the obedience of the saints they don’t understand, I think, how near it is in the body of the Church to that internal struggle of living organisms, in which the unity comes about through activity, oppositions. Finally I also thought that, if John was “the disciple that Jesus loved”, it was Peter whom Jesus asked: “Do you love me?” and it was after his declaration of love that he entrusted the flock to him. He also said everything that there was to love: “What you have done to the least of my brothers you have done to me”.
Above, Saint Peter led to his death, detail of a 4th century sarcophagus in the catacomb of San Sebastiano; Below, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 
13th century fresco, Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran

Above, Saint Peter led to his death, detail of a 4th century sarcophagus in the catacomb of San Sebastiano; Below, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 13th century fresco, Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran

It was obvious to me how needful it is for the Church hierarchy to be known to people, to all people, as one that loves them. Peter: a rock that is asked to love. I understood how much love should be made pass in all the signs of the Church» 5.

I conclude. Is Rome at the center of the world? The answer is a given for the pilgrim visiting Rome, from wherever he comes: does he not feel home perhaps in this universal city?
And then the splendor of its sun, the limpidity of its sky, the radiance of its works of art, the fascination of its neighborhoods, the picturesque traits of its inhabitants, a je-ne-sais-quoi that attracts and moves you, keeps you from leaving and draws you back. There are cities one visits, treasures one contemplates, places one has to have seen. One doesn’t look at Rome from the outside, one penetrates within. One never grows tired of returning to Saint Peter’s Square, of going to pray in the crypt, of going down into the catacombs, of going to the Colosseum, of going up again to the Santi Quattro Coronati, of coming down toward San Clemente, of stopping once again at the Maddalena, of returning to Santa Sabina. Always and everywhere there are pilgrims and Romans conversing or praying, the ones and the others indeed at home, in the house of the good God, as we used to say in Angers when I was little. Some people are more responsive to the sparkling of the mosaics, other to the gleam of marble, other to the dazzling light of Caravaggio. All are moved by the candor of the primitive frescoes, where a morsel of material becomes messenger of the Spirit that animates it, and of that living water that murmurs in us, according to Saint Ignatius, from Rome: it comes from the Father.
From Peter and Paul to John Paul II, the genius loci of Christian Rome has taken up the inheritance of pagan Rome. The temples converted into churches, with the columns that become new supports, and Santa Maria built over the shrine of Minerva. Far from being dazzled by so much splendor, the pilgrim here discovers the message of Peter inscribed in the stones of the basilicas and embodied in the saints. Each finds his place in the bosom of the people of God, not pushed to the wall of some narrow chapel or thrust into some dark crypt, but simply in his place, in full light, in the main aisle, in front of the profession of the Apostle, whose spilt blood attests the salvation that Christ has brought to all mankind. Signed by the mark of Rome, the Christian finds himself Catholic.
With its weight of history the Rome of the popes and saints reminds us that spiritual things are also carnal and that the Gospel is inscribed in the heart of the city of men so as to set them on the road from time to eternity, to the City of God.
So, to the question whether Rome is at the center of the world, I answer without hesitation: yes, so as to lead it to God.


1 Paul Poupard, La charité de Lacordaire, homme d’Eglise, in La Vie Spirituelle, Nov. 1961, pp. 530-543, then in XIX siècle, siècle de grâces, Ed. S. O. S., Paris 1982, pp. 111-128.
2 Paul Poupard, Rome-Pèlerinage, new edition for the Holy Year, D. D. B., Paris 1983.
3 Journal romain de l’abbé Louis Bautain (1838), edited by Paul Poupard, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, (Pamphlets of French culture published by the Fondazione Primoli) Rome 1964, pp. 6-7.
4 cf. Paul Poupard, Le Concile Vatican II, Paris 1983, pp. 105-112.
5 Madeleine Delbrêl, Nous autres, gens des rues, introduction by Jacques Loew, Paris 1966, pp. 138-139.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português