Last Sunday Pope Francis took possession of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, the third of the four papal basilicas.
ZENIT spoke with the former archpriest of the basilica, about its history, the monks there, the tomb of Saint Paul, as well as the ceremony in which the Holy Father took possession of it.
ZENIT: You Eminence, you were archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Paul up to a few months ago.
Cardinal Monterisi: Yes, I was archpriest up to last November; today the archpriest is Cardinal James Michael Harvey.
ZENIT: What can you tell us about this Basilica, of which Pope Francis has just taken possession?
Cardinal Monterisi: In regard to the Basilica, we know that since the 7th century historians have noted the arrival of a Benedictine community in Saint Paul’s Basilica, with an abbot in charge of the Abbey and the Basilica. The present one is a lovely community of some 24 monks of various countries, some of them students and novices. Benedict XVI began reforms in 2005 and instituted a cardinal archpriest, as in the other papal basilicas.
ZENIT: Important works were carried out recently, no?
Cardinal Monterisi: When Andrea de Montezemolo, the first archpriest arrived, he thought it appropriate to erect a building on the right side of the Basilica, for specific needs: hospitality for pilgrims … sale of souvenirs, etc.
Another important building, which was just finished on the terrain of the Basilica, is a pavilion of the Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital, witnessing the work of the Church with the littlest ones.
ZENIT: Also in archaeological excavations?
Cardinal Monterisi: Yes, because when they began work for the new building they found ruins. Work was interrupted for over a year while the Archaeological Section of the Vatican Museums proceeded to identify the ruins and objects. They found the remains of what presumably was a convent of nuns. It was known that around the year 600, nuns were next door to the Basilica, almost as guardians of the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, there is a stone tablet attributed to Gregory the Great confirming this.
ZENIT: What else was discovered in the excavations?
Cardinal Monterisi: As I mentioned, it was around 700 that the first monks arrived. In time, the Benedictine Abbey was consolidated, affiliated to the Cassinense Congregation. We understand it reached its greatest splendor around the year 800, when Pope John VIII had a village built in the place — which was called Giovannipoli and which disappeared later– so that the monastery wouldn’t be so isolated.
ZENIT: Why is Saint Paul’s one of the four basilicas and not others such as Holy Cross in Jerusalem?
Cardinal Monterisi: It was the choice of the Popes. Saint Paul’s was always a papal basilica, built by emperor Constantine for the Pope. That is why, together with Saint Peter’s, Saint Mary Major and Saint John Lateran, they are called the Constantinian Basilicas. The latter was built on ground that was the property of Constantine.
ZENIT: Why was Saint Paul buried here?
Cardinal Monterisi: Saint Paul was martyred at the Three Fountains, in the area of “Acqua Salvie.” His body was taken to the closest cemetery, which was next to the via Ostiense, on the opposite side of today’s main entrance. A few years after Christianity was given liberty, the flow of pilgrims to Paul’s tomb was such, that in 380, the three emperors of that time (Theodosius, Honorius and Valentinian) thought it necessary to build a much larger one, with the dimensions of the present one.
Saint Paul’s tomb was kept intact, in the same place, only raised to the level of the second basilica.
At the time of Pope Saint Leo the Great, the empress Galla Placida had the arch built which is above the altar of the tomb, around the year 440. Attributed to Leo the Great himself is the initiative to place the first medallions on the walls of the Basilica with the figures of the Pontiffs, beginning with Peter.
ZENIT: Then there was a fire, no?
Cardinal Monterisi: The fire of 1823 did not damage the mosaic of the apse, built around 1200. The mosaics, like the artisans, were from Venice. Represented are Christ and Saints Peter, Paul, Luke and Andrew. At Christ’s feet is the small figure of Pope Honorius III. Neither did the fire destroy the arch of the year 440.
ZENIT: Pope Francis recently took possession of it as he did other basilicas. Is that the tradition?
Cardinal Monterisi: If it is a papal basilica, it’s normal to have the Pontiff take possession of it. I don’t remember if all the recent Popes took possession as Francis did. Everyone comes for the celebration of Saint Paul’s conversion, on January 25 every year at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Moreover, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI came to Saint Paul’s during the Pauline Year on the eve of June 28 although, because of health problems, he was unable to return over the last two years.
ZENIT: What was your impression, although you are no longer archpriest, to see the Pope coming to Saint Paul’s?
Cardinal Monterisi: I was very overcome, also because the Conclave had just ended, which elected him and in which I took part. The attention people gave to the Pope’s words was impressive. The sense of joy and celebration of the faithful on seeing the Pope was very touching. Especially the Pope’s concentration during the whole celebration, particularly during the Consecration and Communion. From the very beginning I thought that Pope Francis was imitating intensely the love that Saint Paul had for Christ.
ZENIT: What charism of Pope Francis impresses you most?
Cardinal Monterisi: My impression is that Francis has a very intense spiritual profundity, which is very much felt, he has a great love for Christ in his heart.
He also stressed giving oneself to others, putting oneself at the level of others, to be close to people in the spiritual sense. His metaphors are already known, such as, “in the Church every shepherd must smell like a sheep,” to indicate he must be in the midst of the people.”
ZENIT: What do you think is most important, the reforms Pope Francis will make or the fervor he has awakened?
Cardinal Monterisi: The purpose of all the Church’s activity is the salvation of souls. The Curia and other institutions are instruments that must be as flexible as possible in the Pope’s and Bishops’ hands, to take Christ to the ends of the world.
Pope Francis will continue to stress that God loves man, that He is merciful and forgiving. There have been many conversions in this period, of people who have found a welcoming Church.[Translation by ZENIT]