St. Peter the Apostle

The great domed basilica of St. Peter on Vatican Hill is not the only Roman church dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. There is another on the Esquiline Hill across the Tiber called S. Pietro in Vincoli, or St. Peter in Chains. It, too, is an ancient church. A Christian chapel is said to have stood on the site as early as the year 117, which probably means that it was a house-church; that is, a home turned into a church in the days of the Roman persecutions. Hence St. Peter in Chains was one of the earliest parish churches or “titles” in the Eternal City. Even today, it is assigned to one of the Cardinals who rank as “Cardinal priests” as his official Roman parish church.

The present building, we are told, was constructed in 442 by Roman Empress Eudoxia, although the Empress’s church building has been reconstructed more than once. The feast of this church used to be commemorated on August 1. That was probably the date of its formal consecration.

Those who visit St. Pietro in Vincoli today are especially interested to see one of its treasures–the great statue of Moses by Michelangelo. But what of the chains in the church’s name?

Under the high altar, in a chasse of plate glass and silver-gilt, there are two ancient iron chains fastened together. Tradition has it that Pope Alexander I enshrined here as a precious relic the chain that bound St. Peter in the year 67, when he was imprisoned, prior to his Roman martyrdom in the Mamertine Prison, a dungeon still visitable in the Roman Forum. The second chain is said to be that which bound him in Jerusalem until he was rescued from jail by the angel. Reread the exciting and graphic account of that liberation in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 12. There it is stated that when the angel appeared to the imprisoned Peter and told him to follow him into freedom, “the chains dropped from Peter’s wrists.”

The second chain, perhaps brought from the Holy Land by Empress Eudoxia, was joined to the first chain, whether by a metalsmith or, as some think, by a miracle.

These double bonds were much venerated in past centuries. But even if their history has legendary elements, the very name, St. Peter in Chains, symbolizes something that has always been true of the first bishop of Rome and the popes who have succeeded him. Persecution has always been an occupational hazard for those who have been elected to the Chair of Peter. All have been more or less “in chains.”

The popes have often been oppressed, hampered, harassed, and even imprisoned, exiled or executed just because they were vicars of Christ. As St. Peter was jailed at least three times and then executed, so the seventh-century pope, St. Martin I, was arrested in Rome, carried off to a prison in Constantinople, and then sent into an exile where he died of mistreatment. In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII had to flee Rome because of the persecution of German Emperor Henry IV, and also died in exile. In the fourteenth century Pope Boniface VIII was taken captive by the henchmen of the king of France. Even in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte arrested Pope Pius VII in Rome and carried him off to France.

One could list many other popes who have suffered chains or death. Perhaps all of St. Peter’s successors were included somehow in Jesus’ prophecy to Peter, just before his ascension: “When you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will.” (John 21:18).

It is a harsh prophecy, but an honorable one. So whether it is St. Peter who is manacled and crucified, or John Paul II who is shot by an assassin, the bishops of Rome can even rejoice when they are called on to share the persecution of their Leader. For Jesus himself, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, was, for our salvation, seized, imprisoned, “pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.” Yet, “though He was harshly treated, He submitted and opened not His mouth.” (Is. 53:5,7).

--Father Robert F. McNamara