Today we join in spirit the Christian people of sixth century Rome on a corporate visit to the Basilica of S Peter in Vaticano; to the church where, in the 1960s, the bones of a big and strong old man were found buried beneath a simple second century aedicula covered with Christian graffiti - some invoking S Peter. It is a church built over the Kephas, over the Petra, over the Rock.
Only a generation or so after S Peter's own martyrdom, an Eastern bishop came journeying to Rome; his name was Ignatius. He came as a pilgrim, but as a pilgrim in chains. He was being sent under guard to Rome to be made a martyr. On his way to Rome, he sent letters to the ccongregations he was passing; letters in which, time after time, he emphasised Unity. He urged them, always, to be united around their bishop. He reminded them that, in their local church, the bishop was always and essentially the centre of unity. Frankly, he says this so often that his letters can even become a trifle repetitively boring.
But, as S Ignatius approached Rome, he writes, to the Roman Church, quite a different sort of letter. It was brilliantly analysed back in the 1940s by one of our greatest Anglican Catholic theologians, Dom Gregory Dix. Dix pointed out something odd about it. In his letter to the Roman Church, S Ignatius uses a lot of the same words that he had used in his other letters to the other churches. But now he applies those words differently. If, in the earlier letters, he had used a particular word to refer to the Bishop as the centre of Unity for the Local Church, in his letter to the Roman Christians Ignatius now uses that same word to refer to ... the Roman Church. So that, if he had, earlier, called a local bishop prokathemenos in relation to his Local Church, he now calls the Roman Church prokathemene in relation to the Universal Church. And so on. In other words, in the Local Church, the Bishop is the centre and focus of Unity; in the Universal Church, Rome is the centre and focus of Unity. Dix writes: "Rome stands for ecumenical Unity ... Rome fulfills by its leadership precisely that function towards the Universal Church which the Bishop fulfills towards the Local Church".
Today, carried in spirit by the readings and prayers of today's liturgy, we have journeyed out of the gates of Rome, up the Vatican hill, panting, perhaps, as we climbed it, to the bones of S Peter, to the Rock to whom the Lord said "Upon this Rock I will build my Church". For two millennia, Christians have followed S Ignatius to Rome ... to see the sights, to pray at the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs; but above all, above everything else, they have gone there to listen; to listen to the voice of the Apostle Peter; to hear the Word of God.