The Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) is located on the spot where tradition says St. Peter, hightailing his way out of Rome to avoid persecution, had a vision of the risen Christ.
Peter, shocked to see Jesus walk past him, asked: “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?)
To which Christ responded: “Eo Romam iterum crucifigi.” (I go to Rome to be crucified once again.)
A very ashamed Peter stopped and returned to Rome to bravely face his martyrdom. Tradition teaches us he was crucified at the foot of Vatican Hill where St. Peter’s Basilica stands today. The event is recorded in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and depicted in Annibale Carracci’s 1602 painting “Peter’s Meeting With Christ.”
The anti-gnostic Acts of Peter also describes a miracle contest between St. Peter and Simon Magus, who is associated with gnosticism. It is also the first text that describes the tradition of St. Peter being crucified upside down. It was originally written in Greek during the latter half of the second century in Asia Minor. Tradition ascribes the text to Leucius Charinus, whom Epiphanius identifies as a companion of St. John the Evangelist.
Though Christ and Peter’s meeting doesn’t appear in the New Testament, it does echo a passage from the Gospel of John:
“Where are you going, Lord?” Simon Peter asked him.
“You cannot follow me now where I am going,” answered Jesus, “but later you will follow me.”
“Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” asked Peter. “I am ready to die for you!” (13:36-37).
Divine Meeting Place
Quo Vadis Church is a tiny white Romanesque church located on the Appian Way about half a mile from St. Sebastian Gate, where the Via Ardeatina branches off the Appian Way.
The current chapel was built in 1637, but churches have existed on this spot since at least the ninth century. It is interesting to note that this chapel was built near a pagan site called the Campus Rediculi (“plaza dedicated to the god Rediculum [return]”). The “return” referred to travelers who were returning to Rome. The Appian Way was, after all, a principal road in and out of the city. It is propitious that it was here that Peter received his vision of the returning Christ.
The church’s official name is La Chiesa di Santa Maria in Palmis. Palmis is Latin and refers to the copy of a pair of footprints, long believed to be Christ’s, found on a marble slab at the center of the church. The original relief is preserved in the nearby Basilica of San Sebastiano.
Many people derive their understanding of the above events from the 1951 film Quo Vadis. Made by MGM, it is based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, which has been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.
The setting is ancient Rome, A.D. 64-68, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, and includes historical figures and events as well as fictional ones.
The Roman military commander Marcus Vinicius returns to Rome from the wars and falls in love with a devout Christian, Lygia. Vinicius becomes fascinated by her religion and worries about her because of Nero’s persecution of Christians. He persuades Nero to give her to him as war booty. Lygia dislikes this, but falls in love with Marcus nonetheless.
As Nero descends deeper into madness, he steps up his violent attacks on Christians. He sets fire to Rome in order to clear space for more monuments to himself, then blames the conflagration on the Christians. Vinicius saves Lygia and her family, but Nero captures them along with many other Christians, condemning them to die in the Colosseum. Vinicius and Lygia are married in prison as they await their deaths. Who officiates at the wedding? St. Peter. The apostle is then crucified upside down as per his request: “To die as Our Lord did is more than I deserve.” To which the pagan Praetorian guardsman responds, “We can change that.”
Then Nero’s wife, whose love Vinicius had spurned, hatches a diabolical plot: She has Lygia tied to a wooden stake in the arena. A wild bull is released, and Lygia’s enormous bodyguard, Ursus, must kill it with his bare hands or she will be gored to death. Vinicius, forced to watch the imminent death of his wife and friend, suddenly yells out, “Christ, give him strength!” whereupon Ursus breaks the bull’s neck.
The crowd, shocked at the spectacle, demands that Nero spare their lives. Nero refuses, but his four court retainers pressure the mad emperor into relenting. Vinicius breaks free of his bonds and rescues Lygia with the help of his loyal troops. One of them announces that Gen. Galba is coming, intent on overthrowing Nero.
The crowd revolts as they realize that Nero set the fire that destroyed Rome. Nero flees. Vinicius, Lygia and Ursus are released from prison and leave Rome.
By the roadside, Peter’s staff miraculously sprouts flowers, and a lambent light appears, accompanied by a voice saying, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
I was reminded of the movie as I stepped inside the cool, dim interior of the church. Immediately, I was struck by the silence, even though pilgrims were all around me.
I knelt down and touched the cool marble footprint relief.
Peter and Christ were here in Rome together at this spot. The thought overwhelmed me, and as I looked around the tiny, dark chapel, I realized that Christ, on this spot where I knelt, offered Peter once again forgiveness for his sin of mistrust.
That was all Peter needed to be ready to die for Christ.
There, on my knees on the floor of a crowded chapel, I felt a renewed spirit in me. I offered a prayer thanking God for the opportunity to rest where St. Peter himself stood when he decided to put aside fear and selfishness and recommit himself to Christ.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York City.