Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pilgrims at St. Paul's

This past week, we had class on site at St. Paul's outside the Walls. I blogged pretty extensively about that experience with the class last fall, and the experience was quite similar. In that piece, I emphasized how powerful it is for me to read and discuss the words of St. Paul at the site of his burial. Still true. But in today's post, I want to emphasize something else about this space, something that I also try to demonstrate to the students.

One of the amazing things about a site like St. Paul's Basilica is that it marks a spot that Christians have venerated since the death of Paul almost 2000 years ago. It started as a simple grave. Eventually a monument was built, then a chapel, then a basilica, and then a larger basilica. But the space that is St. Paul's marks a space that pilgrims have visited for centuries, yearning to be near this man who poured out his life--in both ink and blood--to spread the Gospel.

Like the other papal basilicas, St. Paul's received a new "Holy Door" for the jubilee year in 2000. This is the door through which pilgrims may enter to receive the indulgence associated with making a pilgrimage to the church during the Jubilee Year. Pictured here, perhaps you can see that the scenes pictured are biblical, historical, and contemporary. The artwork of the door ties together one God acting in very different times.

Standing before this door, however, it is easy to imagine it open for the pilgrims in 2000, or in Holy Years before that. And if you spend much time at this basilica, it is not long before a tour bus pulls up and about 40 pilgrims emerge, spend a little time exploring and praying, and are back on the bus and gone before you know it. Another soon takes their place.

Since Paul was buried in this space, I wonder how many people have come and said a prayer over his bones. I wonder how many pilgrims have come here, seeking to be strengthened in their trials and sufferings, to ask for Paul's help in fighting the good fight, running the good race, trying to be all things to all people. I hope that my students get a sense of that history--that this place is significant not simply because Paul was buried here but because thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have trekked here to pray, to watch, to hope.

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