March 27, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Caiaphas’ home, where Peter denied Christ three times

John F. FinkWith Holy Week beginning on Sunday, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite churches in Jerusalem. Of course, there are many important churches in Jerusalem built on sites made sacred by the events in Jesus’ life.

For example, there’s the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred shrine in all of Christendom because it was built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There’s the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, built over the rock where Jesus suffered his agony in the garden.

But I think the most beautiful church in Jerusalem is St. Peter in Gallicantu, which, most archaeologists believe sits over the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest who presided over the Sanhedrin’s trial of Jesus. The home would have been a large villa.

A fourth-century pilgrim to the Holy Land from what is now Bordeaux, Francis visited the site. The present church, though, was built by the Assumptionist Fathers in 1931 and was renovated in 1997.

This is where Peter denied knowing Christ three times before the cock crowed twice, according to Mark’s Gospel that we’ll hear this weekend. “In Gallicantu” means “Cock Crow.”

In a courtyard next to the church is a magnificent sculpture showing Peter denying that he knew Christ. The expressions on the faces of Peter, the woman who is pointing toward Christ, and a Roman soldier are marvelous. There is also a cock on the top of a column in the sculpture.

Nearby are steps leading from the Upper City to the Lower City, from Caiaphas’ home to the Pool of Siloam. At the top of the steps are two reliefs, one of Christ leading his Apostles down the steps to Gethsemane after the Last Supper, and the other of Christ being dragged back up the steps after his arrest.

In the church itself, Peter’s repentance, rather than his denial, is commemorated. There are mosaics on both sides of the altar, one of men repenting (with the Good Thief in the center) and the other of women repenting (with Mary Magdalene in the center). But the largest mosaic, over the altar, shows Christ being tried by the Sanhedrin.

Still another mosaic shows Christ being led down the steps from Caiaphas’ home, looking back at Peter who apparently has just denied him. The text under the mosaic, though, rather than describe the scene, has the words of Christ, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18).

There are more chapels under the main church. This level is built over Caiaphas’ prison, where Christ was probably kept after his arrest until his appearance before the Sanhedrin. Visitors can climb down into the dungeon.

On the first of my nine visits to the Holy Land, back in the 1970s, I was part of a group of six Catholic journalists, including then-Msgr. John Foley, editor of the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He was later to become Cardinal John Foley, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. He said Mass for our group in the dungeon. †

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