It’s sometimes a stumbling block for non-Catholics that the Church is centered in Rome. To them it smacks of worldliness and implies a certain level of intrigue. After all, Jerusalem is the Holy City and the place where Christ died and rose from the dead; surely that means the Church ought to be centered there rather than in the pagan city whose representatives killed Christ and persecuted His followers? And isn’t it very suspicious that the Roman Church gives itself such airs when it just happened to be centered at the capital of the empire?
Now, I could go into the history of the Church, the ancient testimony to the primacy of the Roman See even from the earliest days of Christianity, but that’s not really my point today. All I will say on that score is that when Christianity became legal, Rome wasn’t the capital of the western empire: Milan was. Constantine rather wanted the patriarch of Byzantium to be the head of the Church instead of the Pope of Rome (my understanding is that this led eventually to the split with the Eastern Orthodox Church, but as I don’t have enough information to speak intelligently on that subject, I’ll leave it).
My point today is to deal with the question of appropriateness; why it’s symbolically fitting for the Church of Christ to be the Church of Rome rather than the Church of Jerusalem. For, make no mistake, history is rife with symbolism. It’s God’s story, and all the best stories are full of symbols.
Let’s start with an image of two nations: Rome and Judea. Judea, the nation of the Jews, was (and is) the chosen people of God. To them and them alone He had revealed Himself and given His own Law. Yet, they were a curiously insulated people; they were not missionaries or evangelists, and as far as I can recall from the Old Testament, they never received any commission to become so. Judea is a fortress; not an army. Its purpose, as I understand it, was not to spread the faith, but to keep it, and keep it safe from the influences of the outside world. Thus in the book of Maccabees, the crime that the Jews are being put to death for is refusing to break the law. Contrast this with Christian persecutions, where the crime is usually that of preaching the Word.
Now let’s consider Rome. Rome is an army; the power that conquers and unites the world. All the nations of the Mediterranean are brought together under its banner. It overflows with wealth, with glorious buildings, with art and literature. Rome conquers the Greeks and finds their beautiful myths and grand philosophies, which it eagerly assumes. It spreads outward, taking everything that it finds to be good or interesting, while imposing its own high civilization and culture upon the people it conquers. In this way, Rome becomes more and more not just one among a host of nations, but all the nations. It takes in and gives out so that Rome becomes every nation under its authority, and they Rome. To say that Judea is a light to the nations is as much to say that it is a light to Rome.
Now, Christ came as the light to the nations, through whom the Jews would bring God to the world. Thus, as the Light of Christ goes out to the nations, the center of the faith on Earth shifts most appropriately from the holy city of the Jews to the mother city of the nations; from Jerusalem to Rome.
This is not a slight against either Jerusalem or the Jews, both of which are holy forever. Jerusalem will always be the Holy City; God’s own city, but the nexus has turned outward. It is no longer the one nation maintaining their worship to the one God, it is “go forth and make disciples of all nations.” God is now in man as well as above Him. Jerusalem, the Holy City, was the capital of one small people. Rome was the capital of the world, and as God means to conquer the world, the goal, as in every war of conquest, is to take the capital. Take the seat of authority, and you take everything under that seat. God seizes Rome and takes the world.
Put it another way; Christ must take the whole of man; mind, body, and soul. Traditionally, these three aspects of man have been represented by the three cities of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, respectively. This can be illustrated in part when you consider the ‘types’ of the three cities. Athens is the city of the philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Jerusalem of the prophets: Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, etc. And Rome of soldiers and statesmen: Scipio, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and so on.
Christ must conquer each, and each in its proper fashion. Jerusalem, the heart of His ministry and the birthplace of His Church, is conquered by the emergence of the new faith. Athens, the seat of philosophy and learning, is conquered by the great philosophers among His disciples, such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine.
And Rome? Rome is the body; the seat of earthly power, and the icon of all the brute, everyday struggles and triumphs of common humanity; war and politics, commerce and labor, art and literature. Christ must have Rome as the seat of His authority, because Rome is the sign and type of earthly power. To conquer the world, Christ must conquer Rome, but when Christ conquers, He does not destroy but occupies and reorders. When Christ conquered Rome with the blood of St. Peter, He took Rome as His own. Jerusalem remains and always will remain the Holy City, but Rome is the seat of the Church.
Conquered, Rome is reordered by Christ. Once it sent forth armies of soldiers to conquer by the sword. Now it sends out armies of priests and missionaries to conquer by the Word. Once it was the seat of the Emperor, who made and deposed kings and princes and whose word was law. Now it’s the seat of the Pope, who is the conscience of kings and who whose word defines the faith. Once it was the political capital of the world. Now it is the spiritual capital. Once its subjects were spread all around the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Now from China, to America, to Africa, you can scarcely find a town or a city where its name is not spoken in reverence. Rome, as all things, became more itself and not less when it was conquered by Christ.
When Christ took Rome, He took mankind. For mankind, as a whole, cannot be either Athenian or Judean. There will never be a nation of philosophers, just as there will never be a nation of priests or prophets. Those roles are always a minority. Nations are made of soldiers, artisans, peasants, merchants, laborers, and politicians. Rome was all that. It was the seat of power and commerce, as well as a cultural and religious center. The Church must be Roman, because the Church must be human. If the Church were Athenian, she would be for only the philosophers. If she were of Jerusalem, she would be only for priests and sages. But she’s Roman, which is for all humanity; priest, prophet, king, philosopher, beggar, artist, soldier, and merchant.
Vivat Christus Rex!