Rome, Italy – On Saturday, December 22nd, thirty young men dressed in black will visit twenty-five of the churches of Rome. They are seminarians of the Legion of Christ doing a fundraiser, the “Church-a-thon”, to help pay for their seminary grocery bill. As they began planning, they knew that their pilgrimage would take them to some of the most significant churches of the eternal city. What they didn’t realize was that the trek would bring them into contact with relics of all twelve apostles.
“We chose our 25 churches based on two things: first, they had to be significant spiritually and historically; second, they had to fit into a feasible route. We couldn’t just visit churches at random; they had to be open and within walking distance of each other,” says Brother Kevin McKenzie, from St. Louis, Missouri.
“Then a priest-friend of mine, Father Joseph Tham, sent me a list of churches in Rome with relics of the twelve apostles,” continues McKenzie, “I did a double take: the route we had already set for the Church-a-thon takes us to each of those churches.”
The Church-a-thon will begin with mass at the Church of San Pudenziana, the place where Saint Peter first said mass upon arriving in Rome. The seminarians will then zig-zag their way across the city visiting churches, finishing at Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Where are the relics of Jesus’ twelve first followers? We’ll start with the list as Matthew the Evangelist gives it in chapter 10 of his gospel: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”
“Simon, also known as Peter” is a no-brainer. Saint Peter’s Basilica is the final resting place of the prince of the Apostles. His tomb lies three stories below the main altar. Archeologists identified his bones in the 50’s. It’s interesting to note that Peter’s hands, feet, and skull are missing from the tomb. A long-standing tradition says that Peter’s skull rests in the basilica of Saint John Lateran. Historians believe the hands and feet are missing because the Christians who took Peter’s body down from the cross got the job done quickly by chopping at his wrists and ankles, leaving the hands and feet still nailed in place.
“His brother Andrew” is a little bit harder. The coastal town of Amalfi in southern Italy claims possession of Andrew’s body, but not all of it. Andrew’s skull has long been kept in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the pylon of Saint Andrew, just a stone’s throw away from his brother Peter’s tomb. In life as in death, the two stayed close together.
The body of “James son of Zebedee” has long been kept at the basilica of Santiago di Compostella in Spain, culmination of the great “Camino del Santiago” pilgrim’s way. But the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome has a small relic of Saint James.
“His brother John” is the one who wrote the fourth Gospel. John was boiled alive, and his tomb is in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, but a relic is kept at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.
“Philip” was a disciple of John the Baptist, and he brought Bartholomew to Christ. His relics are kept in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome.
“Bartholomew” was at first skeptical about Jesus’ credentials, but he was quickly convinced that he was dealing with someone special: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Bartholomew’s body is kept in the Church of Saint Bartholomew on an island in the middle of the Tiber River in Rome.
“Thomas” is the doubter. He was missing when the risen Jesus first appeared to the other Apostles and refused to believe their story, famously claiming, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas’ finger is kept in a small chapel to the side of the Basilica of “Holy Cross in Jerusalem” situated down the street from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, alongside the greatest collection of relics of Christ’s Passion.
“Matthew the tax collector” also wrote the Gospel of Matthew. He is the only one to tell us about the visit of the three kings. There is a relic of his in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.
“James son of Alphaeus”, also known as James the lesser, was a cousin of the Lord. A relic of part of his arm lies with the relics of Saint Philip in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome.
“Thaddaeus” otherwise known as Jude, patron of impossible causes, has become one of the most beloved of apostles in recent years. His remains are kept in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
“Simon the Cananaean” is also known as “Simon the Zealot” to distinguish him from Simon Peter. His bones also lie in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
“Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him” could have become “Saint Judas”, but he refused to forgive himself or accept God’s forgiveness for his terrible crime. Thankfully, the other Apostles chose Saint Matthias to take his place. His body lies in the porphyry urn under the altar of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.
“We’re really excited about all this,” says Brother Kevin McKenzie. “We just wanted to do a little pilgrimage, and it’s turning out to be so much more. I mean, where else in the world can you venerate relics of all twelve apostles in one day? Now we’re doing an “Apostle-a-thon” in addition to a Church-a-thon. The Apostles were Jesus’ special friends, and we hope they can bring us closer to their master.”