Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ss John and Paul in the Ancient Liturgy of Rome

Today is the feast of the Martyrs Ss John and Paul, two Roman brothers killed for their Christian faith by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361-63. According to the traditional account of their lives, they had been military officers under Constantine, and later served in the household of his daughter, Constantia, who at her death left them her large fortune to take care of the poor. When Julian, the son of Constantine’s half-brother, came to the throne, they refused to attend him at the court because of his apostasy from the Faith. The emperor would have used this as a pretext to seize the money left by Constantia, but granted them ten days to reconsider; the two Saints therefore gave all the money away for its intended purpose. Terentian, the captain of Julian’s bodyguard, then came to their house, bearing a statue of Jove and the Emperor’s promise that they would be greatly honored if they would worship it; otherwise, they would be immediately killed. The words of their response are sung as the second antiphon of Lauds on their feast day: “Paul and John said to Terentian, ‘If Julian is thy lord, have thou peace with him; we have no other than the Lord Jesus Christ.’ ” They were beheaded at once, and buried within their own house on the Caelian hill, directly across from the imperial residence on the Palatine.

This plaque in the floor of the basilica of Ss John and Paul marks the “place of (their) martydom ... within their own house”. This photo was taken on the Friday after Ash Wednesday, when the Lenten Station is held there, by Mr Jacob Stein, author of the blog Passio Xpi, and reproduced with his kind permission.
Not long after, Julian was slain during a military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy, Persia, a campaign which he had instigated and in which he apparently believed the pagan gods would grant him victory as a vindication of his “revival” of their worship. A later apocryphal tradition says that he was killed by a Christian soldier in his army named Mercurius, who is honored in the East as a Saint; his death happened on the feast day of Ss John and Paul, which is probably not coincidental. Julian’s successor Jovian converted the Saints’ house into a church, and many possessed persons were healed there, including the son of Terentian; the latter became a Christian, and wrote the passion of the Martyrs.

Scholars of hagiography do not regard the details of this traditional account as historically reliable, but there can be no reasonable doubt that devotion to Ss John and Paul is extremely ancient. One of the most interesting suggestions of this is found in the manuscript improperly known as the Leonine Sacramentary, now kept in the library of the cathedral chapter of Verona. This is actually not a sacramentary, the ancient predecessor of the Missal, which contains only the priest’s parts of the Mass, namely, the prayers, prefaces and Canon. It is rather a privately made collection of the texts of a large number of “libelli missarum”, small booklets which contained the prayers and prefaces of Masses for specific occasions. These elements often varied from church to church even within the same city; the Leonine Sacramentary is a wildly irregular gathering of them, and has twenty-eight different Mass formulae for Ss Peter and Paul, fourteen for St Lawrence, and eight for Ss John and Paul. The collection was certainly made in Rome itself, since it contains numerous specific references to the city; it is generally dated to the mid-6th century.

In the fifth Mass of Ss John and Paul, the preface reads as follows.

VD. Quamvis enim tuorum merita pretiosa justorum, quocumque fideliter invocentur, in tua sint virtute praesentia, potenter tamen nobis clementi providentia contulisti, ut non solum passionibus Martyrum gloriosis urbis istius ambitum coronares, sed etiam in ipsis visceribus civitatis Sancti Johannis et Pauli victricia membra reconderes, ut interius exteriusque cernentibus et exemplum piae confessionis occurreret et magnificae benedictionis non deesset auxilium. Per.

Truly it is worthy… For although the precious merits of Thy just ones are present in Thy might wheresoever they be faithfully invoked, Thou didst nonetheless in Thy merciful providence mightily deign not only to crown the bounds of this city with the glorious passions of the martyrs, but also to place the victorious bodies of Saints John and Paul in its very heart, so that those who behold it from within and without may be met with the example of the holy confession (of the Faith), and not lack the help of Thy magnificent blessing. Through (Christ our Lord.)

In ancient times, there was a boundary within Rome called the pomerium, and for a variety of legal and religious purposes, only what was inside this boundary was counted as part of the city. Traditionally, when an Emperor had expanded the territory held by Rome, the pomerium was also expanded, until the reign of the Emperor Aurelian (270-75), who made it coterminous with the city walls. It was illegal to bury the dead inside the pomerium, and this is part of the reason why the Christian catacombs, and hence the tombs of the Martyrs buried within them, are all found outside the city. The words of the preface given above about “crown(ing) the bounds of the city with the passions of the Martyrs” refer to the placement of the Martyrs’ graves encircling the city.

An inscription from the reign of the Emperor Claudius, which notes that “having expanded the territories of the Roman people (by the conquest of the island of Britain in 43AD), he expanded and set the bounds of the pomerium.” The photographer has highlighted in red an upside-down F in the last line of the inscription; this device was invented by Claudius personally as a way of writing the consonantal sound W, to distinguish it from the vowel U, both of which were written with the letter V. The new letter never caught on, and was abandoned after Claudius’ death in 54AD. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pierre Tribhou; CC BY-SA 4.0)
It is not known why the Roman law about the pomerium was not heeded in regard to the burial of Ss John and Paul, but the author of the preface was clearly aware that this was very unusual, and saw in it a special act of God’s providence in the Christianization of Rome. In order for this to be noteworthy, the ancient Roman laws and taboos about the burial of bodies within the pomerium would need to be not necessarily in force, but at least remembered. This suggests that the text of the preface may be rather older than the manuscript, going back to a time when such laws and taboos were in fact known and obeyed, or had been so in living memory, and Christianity was still ascendant, but not yet wholly triumphant, in the Eternal City.

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