Did You Know that Saint Peter’s First Church in Rome was a House Church?


Modern Protestants often speak of the trend toward “home churches.” They appeal to the ancient practice of the early Christians to meet in homes for worship. Home churches were a necessity for a persecuted minority of early Christians. Home churches again became necessary during the time of Queen (“Bloody Beth”) Elizabeth when Catholic priests and the Catholic Mass were made illegal in England. Catholic priests and those that hid them in their homes for the purpose of having secret Masses were punished by death.
So the Catholic Church does have a history of “house churches” for times of trouble. No doubt, when the Antichrist comes, house churches will again become the norm for Catholics who persevere in the one true Faith.
It’s notable that there is a tradition identifying the first church in the city of Rome at which Saint Peter ministered as a “house church.”
The Apostle Paul wrote to Saint Timothy saying: “Make haste to come before winter. Eubulus and Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren, salute thee” (2 Tim 4:21). In this final epistle of Saint Paul before his martyrdom, the Apostle includes the names of those prominent in the Roman Church—Linus being one of them. Linus, as you may know, was the second Pope, the one directly following Saint Peter. He’s the Pope that decreed women should wear chapel veils during Mass.
Tradition holds that the Pudens, the man Paul listed along with Linus, volunteered his home to Saint Peter as the first domestic church building of Rome. Pudens’ father was the Roman senator Quintus Cornelius Pudens and his mother was Saint Priscilla—two of the first converts of Saint Peter. The family allowed Saint Peter to use Quintus’ senatorial chair or cathedra for liturgical ceremonies. Hence, Pudens’ home was the first cathedral of Rome. Here Pudens and his daughters Pudentia and Praxedes hosted the Apostles.
This home became known as the ecclesia pudentiana—the Pudentian Church. It is revered as the oldest Catholic church in Rome. From the time of Saint Peter until the conversion of Constantine in A.D. 313, this location was the home and headquarters of the Popes. Eventually, the wooden altar of Saint Peter was removed from the Church of Saint Pudentiana and placed within the high altar at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. In order to honor the Pudentian Church, a plank from the wooden altar was enshrined in the altar of Saint Pudentiana. This gesture symbolized that Peter’s altar was originally at this location. Centuries later, when Cardinal Wiseman was titular cardinal of Saint Pudentiana he had the plank examined and found that the wood was identical with that of the wooden altar preserved at the Lateran Church. These historical and archaeological details demonstrate that Linus and Pudens were the most important Christian leaders in Rome at the time.

In the Catholic calendar up until at least 1955, January 18 was the Feast of the Saint Peter’s Chair at Rome. The “chair” is an Old Testament sign of magisterial authority, as Christ Himself gave witness:

“Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2–3, D-R)

The commemoration of Peter’s chair in rome honors the preeminent magisterial authority of Saint Peter to whom was given the Keys of the Kingdom. Peter’s office as the Vicar of Christ recalls the promise of God to the “royal steward” or “vicar” in the royal household of the Davidic king. This prophecy promises that the king’s steward will “become a throne of honor”:
“And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father.” (Isaiah 22:22–23, D-R)
Yet did Saint Peter as the first Vicar of Christ have his own physical cathedra (Greek: “chair”)? There is a third century anti-Marcionite poem that seems to testify to this historicity of Peter’s cathedra:
Hac cathedra, Petrus qua sederat ipse, locatum
Maxima Roma Linum primum considere iussit.
- Adversus Marcionem (Patrologia Latina II, 1099)
The Latin translates:
“On this chair whereupon Peter himself sat
The great Rome placed Linus and commanded him to sit.”
Saint Linus is of course the successor of Saint Peter, that is the second pope of Rome. Is this cathedra, Petrus qua sederat ipse, a literally chair or is it merely a poetic allusion to Peter’s authority? I suppose that there is no way to know for sure, but Tertullian (cf. De præscriptione hæreticorum, 36) and others seem to suggest or assume that a true physical chair kept in Rome had been that of Saint Peter.
Regardless, the chair depicted above is the traditional “Chair of Saint Peter”. In Old Saint Peter’s, this chair was prominently placed in the baptistry and the Pope would sit on it in order to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. This chair and custom are confirmed to as early as AD 366. 
Today, it is enshrined in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I don’t know whether carbon dating has been performed on it. If you’re aware of any studies or archeological investigations, please send them my way.

If you enjoyed this post, please read Dr. Taylor Marshall’s new book on the interesting and lost traditions about ancient Catholicism and the city of Rome: The Eternal City – Rome and the Origins of Catholic Christianity available now at amazon.com. Please click here to learn more about the book.

      

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