Cross the Tiber River on the Vittorio Emanuale Bridge. Make a left onto the Via della Conciliazione. Look straight ahead and you will be standing in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is one of the most startling sights to see when you turn that corner for the first time. I will always remember it. Walk towards the Vatican and you will find yourself within Saint Peter’s Square and standing between two beautiful fountains. You will be surrounded by the perfectly constructed colonnades of Bernini. Bernini intended those colonnades to be the “arms of Mother Church” surrounding her children. It is quite effective when you look at it from above. In the center of all of this is the Obelisk of Caligula. The mad emperor Caligula brought the obelisk to Rome from Egypt just after the crucifixion of Jesus. It stood within the Circus Maximus during the Christian persecutions begun by Emperor Nero, and later transported in the 16th century to the present site at the Vatican. So large, it took an entire year to move it.
In the summer of 64 AD there was a devastating fire in the city of Rome. The emperor Nero—another madman—scapegoated the Christians, and thus began the great persecution of the Christians, which would continue for another 249 years. It was during this first year of the Roman persecution of the Christians that the Christians were gathered in Rome under the leadership of a man named Peter. Peter had already denied Our Lord three times, 30 years ago in the courtyard, but he was to redeem himself when the Risen Christ later appeared to him. Now 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection Peter was getting very nervous with the persecution of the Christians. There is the story from an apocryphal writing that says Peter fled Rome for fear of being put to death. The shepherd left his flock and ran. While on the road leaving Rome, Peter passes a man going into the city of Rome. Peter recognizes the man—it is the Lord. Peter had not seen Jesus in three decades. Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and asks “Quo Vadis Domine?” “Where are you going, Lord?” To which Jesus responds: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again. You, Simon, have abandoned my sheep.” (Whenever Peter is in trouble, Jesus calls him “Simon.”) With this, Peter courageously turns around and returns to Rome where he will be crucified upside down. Tradition tells us that the last thing St. Peter saw was the obelisk that now stands in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square.
Wait until you hear what happens next. To be continued….
Fr. Gerard Gordon