VATICAN CITY — He once was Saul, a persecutor of Christians. Now, 2,000 years after his birth, St. Paul will bring Christians together.
On June 28, the vigil of the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI solemnly inaugurated the Jubilee Year of St. Paul.
The Holy Father and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople opened a specially engraved “Pauline Door” at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
The Pope lit a votive lamp that will burn continually during the jubilee, which ends June 29, 2009.
An ecumenical flavor will run throughout the year, beginning two days prior to the inauguration when monks belonging to the basilica’s Benedictine Abbey will begin a triduum of prayers with Rome’s Orthodox and Protestant communities. Other ecumenical leaders have been invited to the opening of the year of commemoration, including Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, but so far their attendance is not confirmed.
Benedictine Abbot Edmund Power said one of the most important events during the year will be the vespers prayed in honor of St. Paul every Friday. The basilica, where the tomb of St. Paul lies under the main altar, will also be the site of exhibitions and a series of concerts and talks by respected musicians, theologians, biblicists and other Church figures over the next 12 months.
The basilica’s archpriest, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, told a Rome press conference June 5 that they had “already received a large number of bookings” for the year and talked about the various initiatives that have been planned.
Preparations are also being made for the large numbers of pilgrims to visit the location of St. Paul’s tomb, especially since the Holy Father declared a plenary indulgence for all the faithful who make a pilgrimage to the Roman basilica during this special Year.
Pilgrimage parties can arrange for a Mass to be celebrated in their own language ahead of their visit, and the basilica is drafting Benedictine priests from other abbeys to hear confessions. The basilica’s administrative staff is expecting more than double the number of visitors they usually have, and expect up to 20,000 pilgrims a day.
For the many Catholics who won’t be able to visit Rome, the Vatican says a plenary indulgence can be obtained by participating in a liturgical ceremony honoring St. Paul on the opening or closing day of the Pauline year, or on other days declared for that purpose by the local bishop.
Those who are sick or otherwise confined to their homes may still obtain the indulgence if they “spiritually unite themselves to a jubilee celebration in honor of St. Paul, offering their prayers and suffering to God for the unity of Christians,” according to the Apostolic Penitentiary.
“Each bishop has set aside certain churches within each diocese mostly dedicated to St. Paul and people may visit those churches during this year,” Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said May 30. “It’s then possible to gain this great pardon from one’s sins, that is, the temporal punishment due to sin, with confession and with Communion and with the resolve not to sin again.”
The Vatican website explains why Paul is being honored.
“He, who is called ‘the Apostle to the Gentiles,’ that is, to the Nations, never actually met Jesus during his life in Jerusalem or along the roads of Galilee, like the Twelve Apostles,” it says. “He is the first apostle to have the experience of only the Risen Christ, as all Christians will continue to have through the centuries. This man, who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, was born in Tarsus (currently Eastern Turkey).”
It briefly sketches his mission and importance.
“After having received a rigorous teaching in the Law from Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, he was given a specific mission to go and preach the Word of God to all human beings: first to Antioch and Asia Minor, later to Greece and Rome. Paul is the most well-known figure of the first Christian generation, both for his Letters (seven were undoubtedly recognized to be authentic in the strict sense of the term) and for the story of his life described by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.”
Paul is nonetheless shrouded in mystery.
“On the one hand, the Letters cover only 15 years of his life,” says the Vatican website, “while on the other hand, the Acts, which chronicle his journeys, were written 20 years after his death in the apologetic tone of the day. Therefore, we will give preference to the data contained in Paul’s Letters and their chronology, which greatly coincide with the duration of his travels (for example, the date of the ‘Council of Jerusalem’).”
The site says, “It is very likely that Paul was about 10 years younger than Jesus.”
In total, nine sites in Rome that are connected to the saint’s life are being promoted by the Vatican as part of a Pauline pilgrimage route in the city.
In addition to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, other sites include:
• St. Peter’s Basilica,
• the Basilica of St. John Lateran,
• and the Abbey of the Three Fountains, built on the spot where St. Paul was beheaded on the order of Roman Emperor Nero. According to legend, his severed head bounced and struck the earth in three places from which fountains sprang forth.
Two small churches are also featured on the pilgrim’s route:
• San Paolo alla Regola (St. Paul’s at Regola),
• and Santa Maria in Via Lata (Our Lady at Via Lata), traditionally considered the first and second houses where St. Paul lived and taught in Rome.
The church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine Hill is included. It was believed to be the residence of St. Prisca, a first-century martyr known by St. Paul.
Also on the route are:
• the basilica and catacombs dedicated to St. Sebastian. The relics of St. Paul were thought to have been preserved in these catacombs before being moved to their permanent burial site.
• A final stop is the Mamertine Prison near the Roman Forum, where St. Paul was believed to have been incarcerated.
The Church’s pilgrimage office in Rome, L’Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP), will organize visits to all these sites, and pilgrimage packages can be arranged via its website (josp.com).
The company is also offering pilgrims the chance to walk in the footsteps of the Apostle to the Gentiles further afield, and has devised itineraries to Turkey, Syria, Malta, Greece and Cyprus.
“It’s important to stress, as Paul did in his time, that it’s possible to spread the Gospel in Europe through Asia Minor,” said Father Cesare Atuire, general director of ORP. “He is someone who is an example of hope for dialogue between the Churches of the West and the East, and between different cultures.”
Meanwhile, back at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, a large cleaning operation has been completed.
“There’s been a huge amount of renovation and cleaning work which is very important,” said Graziano Motta, head of public affairs for the Pauline Year. “Just as St. Peter’s was given a face-lift for the jubilee year eight years ago, so the same is being done here.”
In particular, the baldachin, a masterpiece by Arnolfo di Cambio, has had its first clean in two centuries, while the basilica’s entrance portico and cloister have been renovated.
Also the basilica’s gift shop, which strangely used to be located in the church’s San Giuliano chapel, has been moved to make visible some impressive medieval frescoes of the apostles and the Crucifixion.
The basilica’s 1930s baptistery, which adjoins the chapel, can show off its sparkling polychrome marble walls after a renovation program. It will not, as had earlier been planned, be a place for ecumenical services, but Abbot Power said “any group of Christians are free to pray there, or in any of our other four chapels.”
With all the work that has been going into making this year as special as possible, it will be hard for any pilgrim coming to Rome not to be enriched by the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul.
(CNS contributed to this article)
Edward Pentin writes
More info Full details of the year can be found in English on the official website (annopaolino.org)