Within the first three centuries of Christendom, rifts and schisms in the Church already arose (even the New Testament affirms this). Starting in the latter half of the second century AD, a certain sect called Montanism gained wide traction. Adherents of the sect claimed a special type of divine prophecy in which they themselves were possessed by the Godhead rather than inspired; thus they spoke in the person of God: not “thus says the Lord,” according to the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition, but “I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete”. Seized with ecstatic visions, they claimed a privileged proximity to God which directly contradicted the apostolic structure of the Church– that is, their seemingly arbitrary private revelations ran counter to the idea of Christ transmitting his doctrine through the Apostles and their successors. In Montanism we see early hints of modern Evangelical Protestantism.
Eusebius of Caesarea recounts a dispute between a priest of Rome named Caius (or Gaius) and a Montanist named Proclus which took place during the pontificate of Pope St. Zephyrinus (reigned 199-217) and perhaps even occurred in the pontiff’s presence. When Proclus pressed Caius on the source of the Roman Church’s authority, Caius responded: “I can show the trophies of the Apostles [τρόπαια τῶν ἀποστόλων]. For if you choose to go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church.”
Whereas the “trophies” of the great emperors and generals were triumphal arches commemorating some military victory, the “trophies of the Apostles” were their tombs, signifying their glorious assimilation into the Paschal Mystery and the eternal victory of Christ. Caius knew that this link to the Apostles was ultimately a link to Christ himself. Already in the earliest years of the Church, the tombs of these Apostles were fiercely guarded places of veneration, and in the case of Peter’s burial, many of his immediate successors, though killed across the Tiber along the Via Appia, were brought to the Vatican hill for burial iuxta tropheum principis Apostolorum. Devotion to Peter and Paul was so ancient and well-attested; we therefore know with certainty that their headship over the whole Church was unquestioned in those critical first generations. Thus the idea of Apostolic Succession was not only present in the early Church, but is precisely the doctrine which guaranteed continuity cum fontibus revelationis and unity within the entire Church Catholic.
Today’s Martyrology entry:
Romae natalis sanctorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, qui eodem anno eodemque die passi sunt, sub Nerone Imperatore. Horum prior, in eadem Urbe, capite ad terram verso cruci affixus, et in Vaticano juxta viam Triumphalem sepultus, totius Orbis veneratione celebratur; posterior autem, gladio animadversus, et via Ostiensi sepultus, pari honore habetur.
At Rome, the death of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, who on the same day of the same year, died under the emperor Nero. The former, in said City, crucified upside down and buried on the Vatican hill next to the Via Triumphalis, is celebrated with the veneration of the whole world; the latter, marked with the sword and buried on the Via Ostiense, also holds equal honor.
Both Apostles, as we know from the New Testament, possessed a sort of bravado, an intense tendency toward zealotry. In each of the fifteen episodes featuring Peter in the Gospel of Matthew (except for the Petrine Confession), we see him as rash and overconfident, especially when, before the Passion, he assures the Lord that he will not deny him. In John’s Gospel, Peter is the one who draws his sword against Malchus, servant of Caiaphas. Paul, likewise, was the great Pharisee and persecutor of the early Christians, who watched in judgment as a mob murdered Stephen, deacon and protomartyr.
Yet in the case of both, their encounters with the risen Christ effected a radical transformation in them. From the man who “humbled himself unto death upon the cross,” they learned humility. No longer did they choose to exalt themselves or to exact vengeance against those who stood against them, and through the manner of their respective deaths, they gave concrete witness to the type of humility which gives the Christian his unfading crown of glory. Peter, capite ad terram, realized that he should not be raised above the earth as was the Lord. No longer did he hold visions of earthly triumph in a temporal Davidic reign, but made of his final testimony a true kenotic gesture as he denied himself and took up the cross.
Saul of Tarsus, once a proud and respected Roman citizen, held the right to carry the sword, which he often brandished while giving chase to the first Christians. The new Paul, gladio animadversus, now received a death marked by the same weapon which defined his former life. The words of Christ in Gethsemane rang true: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
And just as Christ transformed the cross into the sign of eternal life, Christ transformed Peter and Paul, once errant and arrogant, into the humble yet enduring foundation of the Roman Church, in whom the Church of Christ subsists until the consummation of the age. Today, their legacy of sanctity endures ante faciam omnium populorum, for just as in the first generation of the Church, if you should go to the Vatican hill or to the Via Ostiense, you will find the trophies of those glorious apostles who founded the Church of Rome.
Hodie Simon Petrus ascendit crucis patibulum, alleluia.
Hodie clavicularius regni gaudens migravit ad Christum.
Hodie Paulus Apostolus, lumen orbis terrae, inclinato capite pro Christi nomine, martyrio coronatus est, alleluia.