Up until I left for college, my world largely centered around my local Catholic church in Hamburg, NY. As a family—grandparents and cousins included—we attended mass 10:45am every Sunday morning. I went to the parish elementary school for nine years—from kindergarten through 8th grade—and to this day, count my friends from there as some of my closest. I participated in the Youth Group and volunteered my time as an altar server and lector. I even volunteered at the annual party to honor the church’s volunteers.
In the many, many hours I spent on the church campus, I never really paid much attention to the sign outside. It reads “Saints Peter and Paul R.C. Church.”
R.C. Roman Catholic.
I always knew what that those letters stood for: more than just the title of our church, it was the name of my religion, the identity of my family for generations back. Not Wesleyan. Not Methodist. Not Lutheran. Roman Catholic.
For as long as I’ve brandished those words as a part of my consciousness and my identity, though, I am only just discovering the depth of what they truly mean.
When you look on a modern map of Rome, you can’t help but notice the patch of land carved out in 1929 for Vatican City, the independent state of the Catholic Church. As it has been since its early years, the modern Roman Catholic Church is geographically and politically centered in Rome.
But that’s only the beginning—the surface—of what fully makes the Church “Roman.” After months of exploring the city and its history, let me explain.
As the first emperor of the newly formed Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, claimed spiritual—in addition to temporal—ascendancy over his people, declaring himself high priest and Pontifex Maximus (a title that literally translates to “greatest bridge-maker”). In the tradition of Augustus, subsequent emperors also assumed this spiritual power by adopting the pontifex maximus title. The tradition continued until just after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, when the revolutionary, subversive sect became the established religion of the Empire.
No longer on the down and out, the Church’s leadership structure became intertwined with the hierarchy of the Roman Empire itself. But as the Roman Empire began to fall, the Church remained. Within the vacuum caused by Rome’s fall, the Popes and the Catholic Church emerged as a source of stability, continuity and power, wielding authority over this world and the next.
As much as they were spiritual leaders, the Popes were temporal leaders as well, carrying on the legacy of the Roman Empire. For centuries—continuing to the unification of Italy in the late 1800s—the Popes reigned over the scants remains of the Roman empire through the Papal states. They waged war, built monuments, churches and palaces across the city, and like the former emperors, proudly adopted the title of pontifex maximus.
When you walk around the city of Rome today, or tour the formal Vatican residences as part of the Vatican Museums, or stand in one of the cavernous Papal Basilicas, you see the living proof of this continuity. Blazoning these beautiful buildings, monuments, and even Egyptian obelisks (seized by the Romans during the conquest of Egypt) are placards announcing the good works of each pope, followed by the title “Pont Max.” On the front of St Peter’s Basilica, right above the window where the new popes are announced: Paulus V Pont. Max. On the Coliseum: Pius IX Pont. Max. On the Trevi Fountain: Clemens XII Pont. Max.
This continuity is more than titular. It speaks to the way the popes saw themselves, the way the Church as an institution—spiritual and political—shaped the city in a way any traditional government or bureaucracy would, in a way that carried on the legacy of the Roman civilization, in the very heart where Roman civilization stood.
Roman Catholic: not just “in Rome,” but “of Rome.” More like Roman, Catholic.
The Roman Empire may have fallen, but centuries later, to some extent, millions of Roman Catholics across the world—myself, my family—carry on in the shadow of its legacy.