By Daniel Malakowsky
"Quo vadis?", "Romam eo iterum crucifigi."
Tradition holds that this exchange between Peter and Jesus led to the apostles decision to remain in the city of Rome during a period of persecution and ultimately be crucified himself, albeit upside-down. As he was fleeing the city, it is said he encountered the risen Lord walking towards Rome and uttered these words in Latin, translated as, "where are you going?" In response Jesus stated, "I am going to Rome to be crucified again."
The city of Rome has a sacred legacy that goes beyond its role as capitol of the empire. It was this city alone that a church could claim both Peter and Paul as its founders. One Jesus uniquely called out in the much debated passage in Matthew 16 to be his rock, the other he uniquely commissioned as his apostle and ambassador to the Gentiles. Both would find this city the place of their death, as each was martyred, it is believed, during the reign of Nero.
The city of Rome would see its significance unfold in the next centuries in relationship to the church as it would be affirmed as the first among equals in comparison with other important sees. Damasus I, bishop of Rome from 366-384, formally developed the idea of sedes apostolica (apostolic see) and it was during the time of his successor, Siricius, that the title of papa (pope) would be applied exclusively to the Roman pontiff. Many great men and leaders would eventually hold this title, such as Leo I and Gregory the Great, who would navigate and lead through political and theological turmoil.
With the crowing of Charlemagne on Christmas morning of the year 800 A.D. by Pope Leo III, a new era unfolded which would be known as the Sacrum Romanum Imperium (Holy Roman Empire). During this era, Rome, and with it the papacy, would grow to incredible levels of power, prestige, and alongside each, controversy. The legacy of Rome would be its role as the centerpiece of this bridging of temporal and ecclesial powers and its place in history as the successor of Peter. The question is whether this is truly the legacy of Rome?
While gathering for the Wittenberg 2017 meetings with leaders who were representative of numerous different streams and traditions of the Christian faith, there would be the opportunity to worship together as our time would allow us one Sunday with one another. As many who gathered were of traditions in which they celebrated mass every Sunday, many of these being clergy themselves, there was the reality and difficulty of planning a form of worship that would honor the present divisions within the body of Christ, without also dishonoring the traditions that each was a part of. That meant that we could not take part in celebrating the table together, the very thing Jesus commanded us to in coming before the bread and the fruit of the vine. Therefore, it was decided that we should celebrate the heart and nature of that passage of scripture in the middle of the Gospel of John, by reaffirming our baptism vows and through the washing of feet. We may not have been able to come to the table together, but we could get as close to it as possible.
The location of this gathering would be in the church that now sits atop the catacombs of St. Callixtus. These underground chambers would become the gathering place of early followers of Jesus as they buried their dead. Adorned with frescoes that portrayed the gift of life in Christ and the power of the resurrection in the life of the church through the triune God, many martyrs, including Roman bishops, were placed inside of these carved rocks and were commemorated for their example to the flock. Following a tour of these sacred chambers and burial grounds, we gathered in the small church above embracing both the legacy and pain of this city. Standing above the witness of its faith, we also came knowing we sat at a divided table.
In a service led by clergy representing Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Anglican traditions, we were blessed as we moved through a liturgy which included a 'pre-Eucharistic' thanksgiving, a purification with water, an offering of ourselves to God and one another, a surrendering to the Spirit, and finally an offering of peace. The highlight and focal point of this time came through the washing of feet. The Catholic clergy washed the feet of the Protestants, the Protestants those of the Catholics, and the German clergy washed the feet of the Messianic Jews among us.
One of the leaders of this service was the Catholic priest, Fr. Peter Hocken. In a conversation with him that evening there was an opportunity to ask him what he thought of the service we were able to take part in earlier that day. Obviously moved emotionally, he stated that the legacy of Rome is not its authoritative claim to Peter and apostolic succession. Its legacy is in the shed blood of Peter and Paul and the many martyrs that followed that gave this city its sacred history and heritage. The legacy of Rome then is not its power, but the witness of those who have given themselves in life, and death, to the testimony of the Gospel and Christ.
That morning as we worshipped together above those catacombs, we embraced that legacy. We stood with men and women who have given themselves to the Gospel and in their humility served one another in love. Instead of using their position as a seat of power and their authority to bring service to themselves, they in turn used their role to serve those who had gathered. Bending their knees and grabbing the bare foot of the one they were serving, they opened their hearts and blessed the one before them with sincere joy.
This is the very type of leadership that Jesus exemplified and called forth in his disciples. The legacy of Christ then became the legacy of the disciples as they heeded his words not to use their power as the world does. As the disciples wrestled with their own personal desires for greatness, Jesus never denied them those desires. He had created them for greatness, yet he revealed to them that their greatness would not be found in their authority, but in their willingness to serve in love (Matthew 20:20-28). This is the power that Peter and Paul walked in as they followed the Gospel to their own crucifixion and beheading, walking after their master who had given his life as a ransom for many. The church followed a similar path and the catacombs that we gathered in bore witness to this fact as we walked past tombs with an 'm' marked upon them signifying the martyrs death of the one who was once buried within.
The church of the empire recognized Rome as first among equals. Her legacy then is not in her power and authority, but in her service and witness to the world. As we recognize the pain that is the divided table that we were unable to gather together at, we know that the path to reconciliation will be paved by men and women who will walk after this very legacy that laid beneath our washed feet.
"Those who attack us do not distinguish between Orthodox, Lutherans, Evangelicals or Catholics; they know only that these brethren are Christians. As far as they are concerned, we are all the same. And in these attacks many of our brothers and sisters have given their lives in witness to Jesus Christ. In such places they are experiencing the ecumenism of bloodshed, the ecumenism of martyrdom. This should impel us all the more to seek paths of unity in our daily lives." ~ Pope Francis