The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall, so-called because of its location outside the old city walls of Rome, is one of the great churches of both Rome and Catholicism. Although overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, it is nevertheless a beloved and popular pilgrimage destination. Aside from its antiquity, it is home to the grave of Paul, the Christian Apostle to the Gentiles, and the most important early Church figure after Peter. St. Paul’s is one of the seven ancient pilgrimage churches of Rome, one of five Patriarchal Basilicas (representing Alexandria) and one of only four cathedrals in the world to bear the distinction of being a Basilica Major. The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall is part of the Vatican City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Paul, one of the most important if controversial figures of the New Testament, was also the most crucial in the spread of Christianity in the 1st century AD. Although he was not one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus in the Four Gospels to carry out his ministry, Paul dominates the second half of the Book of Acts, which extensively recounts his missionary journeys. These stories, along with over a dozen letters attributed to Paul and included as writings in the New Testament, makes him by far the best known member of the early Church. According to tradition, his final mission took him to the imperial city of Rome, where he was martyred by beheading sometime around 67 AD.
Like Peter, who was also martyred in Rome around the same time, Paul’s grave became a place of veneration almost immediately. Unlike Peter, Paul’s place of burial outside the city along the Ostiense Way was apparently better known, and was marked by a memorial of some sort (the exact site was later confirmed by modern-day scientific investigations). Shortly after his legalization of Christianity, the emperor Constantine constructed the first church over the site of Paul’s grave. This first church was expanded and embellished many times over the ensuing centuries. At one time it may have been larger than St. Peter’s Basilica, if less prominent. Beginning in the year 1215, the Basilica of St. Paul was the home church in exile of the Latin Patriarch of Alexandria.
After fires ravaged St. John in Lateran and St. Peter’s Basilica was demolished in the 15th century, St. Paul’s Basilica became the oldest largely intact church in the city of Rome, and one of the oldest in the world. Unfortunately, St. Paul’s fell victim to fire in 1823, when it was almost completely destroyed by accident during a renovation. It was subsequently rebuilt, based as closely as possible on the design of the earlier church, and reconsecrated in 1855. It remained the seat of the Patriarchate of Alexandria until 1964.
During the renovation, the presence of Paul’s sarcophagus was noted by Benedictine monks. In 2006, more than a century later, it was excavated, and body examined by church officials and scientists. To great fanfare, it was announced that the bone fragments within the sarcaophagus likely dated to the 1st century AD. As the site was nearly continually venerated for almost 2,000 years, and as the scientific evidence confirmed the antiquity of the remains, the possibility that this was the sepulcher of Paul’s corpse is strongly supported. As such, it is considered one of the most important churches in the world, and though off the beaten path for most visitors to Rome, it is a must-see place for Christian pilgrims.
The fire that nearly destroyed St. Paul’s was a true tragedy, as parts of the building dated back as far as the 4th century. However, the 19th century reconstruction was undertaken with great care to the spirit of the original. Governments and individuals from all over Europe contributed money and materials to the effort. The outside certainly has the look of a Roman-era structure, with marble-faced and columned façade before which stands a solitary statue of St. Paul. The upper level of the basilica’s exterior features exquisitely painted figures and scenes from the Bible. Entrance to the church is through a door which incorporates parts of an earlier door built in the 11th century. Another entrance, the Holy Door, is opened only during a Papal declared Jubilee.
The church’s interior is a breathtaking reproduction of an ancient Roman basilica with a single great nave flanked by columned aisles. The whole is adorned with a variety of mosaics that survived the 19th century fire, as well as newer works. Most famous is one that portrays scenes from the New Testament which dates to the 5th century. Paul’s tomb is located in a marble sarcophagus in a crypt beneath the altar.
Although smaller and less obtrusive than the gargantuan St. Peter’s, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls has a beauty and serenity that sets it apart even in such a city as Rome. It welcomes smaller crowds of visitors annually. The basilica is open every day of the year from 7:00am-5:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.basilicasanpaolo.org (official website)
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall is one of the seven official pilgrimage churches of Rome. The others are the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican; the Basilica of St. John in Lateran; The Basilica of St. Mary Major; the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall; the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem; and for traditionalists, there is also the ancient Church of St. Sebastian, the only site not independently covered here.