Bilbo Baggins used to say, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” This is true of many roads, and lead Bilbo to compose these words:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I will follow if I can
I have been to Rome now six times but only this time have I made the journey to the Quo Vadis church on the Appian Way.
Yesterday after breakfast, another priest and I left our lodgings near the Basilica of Saint Peter and began the 7 kilometer (4.35 miles) walk toward this ancient holy site. Along the way we stopped in various churches to pray briefly and to admire the various works of art housed in them. Thinking the Quo Vadis church might be closed during the siesta period, we didn’t make too many stops along the way lest we be late.
We did, though, stop here and there through the imperial forum, which was on our way. At the coliseum we turned toward the south to connect to the Appian Way.
This ancient road was built by the Romans in 312 B.C. and connected Rome with the southern and eastern parts of Italy. It was one of the great highways of the Empire and was called by Statius, “the queen of the long roads.”
It was on this ancient road that Saint Peter fled the city of Rome following an outbreak of the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. As he hurried away from Rome, Peter encountered a traveler hurrying towards Rome.
When the two were closer to each other, Peter recognized his fellow traveler and said, “Quo vadis, Domine (Where are you going, Lord)?” Jesus answered him, “I am going to Rome to be crucified anew.”
With that, Peter realized he was following his own will and not that of the Master and quickly returned to Rome, there to meet his martyr’s death. The words of Jesus must have resounded in his heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).
Peter was later crucified on the Vatican Hill, but in his humility he asked to be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to die the same death as the Lord.
Somewhere along the way we missed the most direct route, which wasn’t too surprising since the maps aren’t always detailed and the street signs are not always clear. As we stood at an intersection inspecting our map, an elderly Roman out for a stroll came our way.
“Scuse, signor,” said I. “Dove il chiesa Quo Vadis?”
He paused – because the roads never go in a straight direction for very long, Romans always have to consider first where you are and where you want to go before directing you – he explained – in Italian and with helpful gestures – where we needed to go. Because the directions were somewhat complex he started to explain them again and then simply told us to follow him.
As we walked along with him he visited with us, he in Italian and we in broken Italian with a bit of English tossed in. He said he thought we were British, which I took as a nice compliment (another person told me yesterday they thought I was British) and asked how long we were ordained.
After several minutes of walking out of his way we arrived at a large intersection. He stopped and explained to us how to reach the church from there. We parted ways, he on his stroll and we on our pilgrimage.
We walked onto the Appian Way – which is rather narrow at places – and walked along the wall so as not to be run over by fast moving vehicles.
After some time we finally arrived at the simple church and spent some time in prayer before walking across the street for a little lunch.
The church itself is somewhat quaint and in need of repair, but is also a profound place for prayer.
Within the church is a copy of a stone - the original is in the church of St. Sebastian - in which are the imprints of two feet, said to be the feet of Jesus when he encountered Peter on this road:
Can you imagine how different the world would be had Peter not turned around and returned to Rome? Would the message of the Gospel have spread throughout the Church had Peter not returned to imitate his Master even in death?
What is this Road on which we are to walk? What is the door from which it began? How can it have gone far ahead? How can we follow the Road?
The Road, of course Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). The Door at which it begins is the same Jesus who said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:9). The Road has gone on far ahead because Jesus has walked the way before us. We can follow the Road because he says, “Come, follow me.”
You and I are often tempted to follow our own way even when the way of the Lord is clearly marked out before us. Let us follow Peter’s wise and holy example and always seek to be where the Lord would have us, seeking only to follow his will for us. May the Lord never have to ask us, “Quo vadis?”
Rather, let us seek always to go out from our own door through the Door that is the Lord so as to find ourselves always on his Way. Let us not seek to keep our feet, but let us instead allow the Lord to sweep us off our feet and carry us wherever he wills.