Almost everything came and went through Rome at the time when the church was founded. This helped accelerate the spread of the Gospel.
Have you ever wondered why the capital of the Christian world is in Rome? Why is it that the Vatican is in Rome and not in Jerusalem, or even Nazareth? After all, Jerusalem is where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Nazareth is where he spent thirty of his thirty-three years on earth. And why not Bethlehem, where Jesus began his earthly life? Why is Rome the seat of the church’s authority and the home of the pope when in fact Jesus never once stepped foot there?
The answer is two-fold: practical politics and theology.
Anyone who knows anything about history knows that for a very long time the Roman Empire was the lone superpower that seemingly ran the world. Two thousand years ago, during the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was at its strongest and most healthy point. It was the capital of the world, not only politically but also financially. The church was born and grew up in this political setting. So when the Apostles went out to spread the Gospel as Jesus commanded them, it was only natural for some of them to go to Rome. That city was, in effect, what the heart is to the body: almost everything came and went through Rome. This helped accelerate the spread of the Gospel.
Yet in the 2,000-year history of the church, Rome has not always been a strong political power. In fact, fairly early on, the Roman emperor moved out of Rome and went to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) because Rome lost its glow and influence. Even much later, the popes themselves moved to France for nearly seventy years because Rome had become such a dump of a city that they did not want to live there.
That being said, even then the popes still claimed to be the bishop of Rome, not the bishop of Avignon, France, where they were residing. Even when the Roman emperor moved to Turkey, the popes were still the bishops of Rome, and the church kept its capital in the capital of Italy. Why the church has always kept Rome, despite that city's loss of world influence, is where the theological reasons come into play.
The first theological reason, of course, is that Peter was the first bishop of Rome; to be the successor of Peter is to be the bishop of Rome. But he was the bishop of Antioch first. Bishops move, just like Bishop Robert Brom is now the bishop of San Diego and Archbishop Roger Schwietz is the archbishop of Anchorage. So there is a deeper meaning and reason than Peter being Rome’s first bishop, otherwise Antioch would be the center of the church. The principle reason for Rome being the capital of the church has to do with two corpses.
If you were to go to the Diocese of Rome’s cathedral, the Church of St. John Lateran (not St. Peter’s), you would see a beautiful baldachino, which is a freestanding structure, over the altar. On the top of the baldachino are two gold statues of Saints Peter and Paul. These hollow statues contain the skulls of the saints they represent. It is a very clear symbol that the authority of the bishop of Rome, indeed the placement of the church’s capital, is because it is the place of the martyrdom and burial of these two Apostles.
The bodies of the Apostles were and are of the utmost importance to the Catholic Church. In the second preface of the Mass for the Apostles’ feast day, the prayer states, “[Lord], you founded your church on the Apostles to stand firm forever as the sign on Earth of your infinite holiness and as the living Gospel for all men to hear..” The liturgical prayer of the church makes clear that the church was founded on the Apostles. That being said, for a community to have an actual body of one of the Apostles gave great prestige to that city.
In the early church, everyone knew that the Apostle John was buried in Ephesus, which made Ephesus a place of prominence in the Christian world, as well as a destination for pilgrimages, which obviously helped the city financially. The same was the case with all the Apostles’ relics: where they were buried was what gave importance to particular places. The two greatest Apostles are Peter and Paul, and since they were both martyred and buried in the same city, that city would always have prominence in the Christian world.
When the pope issues a formal document like a papal bull, it is always sealed in lead with the images of Saints Peter and Paul. It is because of those two Apostles that the bishop of Rome has supreme authority to be able to issue authoritative documents. As Rome grew in authority through history, other relics of Apostles ended up there. St. Peter’s Basilica, besides having the body of Peter, also has the bodies of the Apostles Simon and Jude. Other churches in Rome claim the bodies of the Apostles Matthias and Bartholomew.
We who live in the 21st century might have a difficult time appreciating the significance of certain tombs, but to the church it has always been of great importance; it is the reason for the church’s headquarters being placed in Italy, rather than in Israel.
Previously published June 2007