Rome. It’s a grandiose, prestigious and powerful city. Everything is extravagant. Even the lone columns left standing from an era some 2,000 years ago give the sense of being a part of something imposing at one time. Around every bend, shooting off the busy streets, are narrow and silent alleyways. For every corner with a street musician, there are dozens more with tables and laughing friends sharing a bottle of wine. And everywhere, there is a buzz. It’s the sound of the Eternal City’s history, the voices of centuries old ghosts lining the streets. Of emperors and Caesars. Priestesses and gladiators. Painters and sculptors. Inventors and kings.
But when you head outside the city walls and drive through neighborhoods and past clotheslines, you leave the narrow alleys lined with impressively old and beautiful architecture and you take in a different view. There are mountains to your left, and as they grow larger and the buildings grow shorter, you get the feeling you’re leaving the pomp. There are churches, but they are unassuming. There is significance, but you have to look for it. There is history, but it does not brag, “Look what we’ve done.” Instead it invites, “Look what we’ve survived.”
In the outskirts of Rome you find the catacombs—some 60 different underground burial sites for early Christians, from the time prior to Christianity being legalized when believers weren’t allowed to bury their dead above ground. In the largest of the catacombs, spanning 37 acres, and going down four stories into the Earth, a half million bodies were excavated—including three popes. To be there today feels both serene and heavy. Below the ground the air is chilly and the narrow tunnels—lined with hollowed out spaces, once having housed bodies of martyred adults and children alike—are damp.
If Rome was the seat of immovable power, the countryside outside of Rome, and the catacombs beneath it, are the seat of unshakeable faith.
Outside Rome’s city walls there is the hum of a different kind. It’s the hum of steadfast pilgrims whose eyes were on a different kind of eternal city. Of steadfast faith and sacrificial compassion. Of believers who saw the power of Rome not as something to acquire or aspire to, who were followers not of a Caesar but a Christ.
I remember eating breakfast one Easter morning as a little kid at the dining room table and my dad telling me the story of the disciple Peter. How, on the night Jesus was arrested, after Peter swore his allegiance to his rabbi, Peter went on to deny Him three times—just as Jesus said he would. And I remember my dad telling me that Peter ultimately became the father of the Church, how after the resurrection, Jesus reinstated him, asking him to feed His sheep, and Peter, this time professing a love and devotion that would not waver, answered he would. And then my dad told me of Peter’s death. Of how he would be crucified upside down in Rome, how after seeing a risen Jesus, it didn’t seem to matter any more what the cost of following him was, Peter was willing to go.
I’ve always liked Peter. Though outspoken and impulsive in the three years he walked with Jesus, he seemed a different man after he denied knowing Him, and then after an alive Jesus welcomed him back to the fold. He seemed more reflective. More introspective. Maybe there was no one who understood grace more than Peter. Maybe every day he lived and breathed the reality that the worst he could do still found him loved and pursued, believed in and appointed by the One who had every reason to despise him.
The story goes that as Christian persecution increased in Rome in the 1st century, Peter left making his way outside the city walls, into the countryside—a countryside that would later be carved into to hold the tombs of followers of the Way. There, Peter had a vision of Jesus walking towards Rome.
“Domine quo vadis?” “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks Him.
“To Rome, to be crucified again.” Jesus responds.
Tradition says, right there, Peter decides to return with Jesus. To turn back towards the city and the Caesar and that would ultimately ask for his life. It’s a stark contrast from the scene around the fire inside the walls of Jerusalem on the night of Jesus’ death years earlier, where talking to a young girl, Peter frustratingly insists, he does not know Jesus. The quo vadis story tells of Peter’s conversion more clearly than any other I know.
“Where are you going Lord?” he seems to say, “because this time, I am going with you.”
There is a church outside the walls of Rome. It doesn’t have any marble or travertine. There are no looming columns and impressive statues. It is simply four faded red stucco walls making an unimpressive building at the intersection of three cobblestone streets. It is the Church of Quo Vadis. Inside is a stone imprinted with what is said to be the footprints of Peter from when he saw the vision of Jesus as He returned to the seat of the Empire.
More than any other historical marker or significant building, even more than St. Peter’s basilica itself, this church impressed me. Rome is a city of power come and gone. The Church Quo Vadis outside the ancient walls, of a spirit alive and well. Rome is a city engraved with the works of men trying to leave a mark on the world, to be remembered. But the Church Quo Vadis is in honor of a man who came from humble beginnings. Who died a humble death, who knew monuments do not memorialize a man. A life well lived, a death well died does that for you. And his memory lives on more familiar than most Caesars. A testament to faith, and not to might. I get the feeling this is the kind of church Peter would have liked. One that invites its visitors not to revere the man, but bids them ask themselves the same question Peter asked Jesus,
“Where are you going Lord?”
And then offers quiet enough for those standing where Peter stood, surrounded by the ancient tombs of Christians willing to risk it all for a subversive power at the cost of their lives, to answer for themselves.
Peter, eventually, decades after the first invitation to go and die, and his denial and refusal, decided fleeing Rome would cost him more than staying. So, he returned. He died. And now a church remains. A church named Quo Vadis and a universal Church Jesus promised would outlive and outlast Caesar’s and empires, kings and kingdoms and everything in between.