"The ever-present possibility of making [a] 'turn' and being born anew is also an apt theme for this station at the Twelve Holy Apostles. For, as the gospels record with remarkable frankness, the spotless were a dodgy lot, who constantly needed converting. They were obtuse at times; they were truculent on occasion; most of them took off in panic at the arrest of Jesus, and only one could bring himself to stand at the foot of the Cross. Yet these men changed the course of history by their preaching and their witness and became, according to the Book of Revelation, the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. These changed lives are a powerful testimony to the historicity of the Resurrection, for what else but a wholly unprecedented experience--encounter with the Risen One--could have turned sinful, cowardly, and ill-educated men from the fringes of civilization into heroic missionaries and heralds of a new civilization?...
"The radical conversion of life to which every Christian is called is a lifelong process, and for virtually everyone there are numerous potholes along the road. Falling into these potholes breeds the sense of guilt of which the psalmist speaks in the responsorial of today's Mass: 'If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?' Moreover, the commands that Jesus lays down in today's gospel reading seem to multiply exponentially the inevitability of falling into various 'iniquities." The disciples of Jesus are not simply to avoid murder, but to avoid anger. Perhaps even more demandingly, the friends of Jesus are to clear the decks of hostility before even approaching the altar for worship: 'if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.' The Church's tradition of beginning every Mass with a confession of sins and a plea for the divine mercy comes into clear focus here: we seek the Lord's forgiveness before we offer the sacrifice of the New Covenant and receive the Lord in Holy Communion, not to make ourselves feel better, but because we have been commanded to do so."
- Excerpt taken from Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, by George Weigel.
Passing through the Piazza Ss. Apostoli, one is hard pressed to imagine the raucous activities that took place here half a millennium ago, when the Colonna family, one of the most powerful in Rome during the Renaissance, lived in the palace to the right of the church. Not only lavish parties with fountains of wine and gleaming gold and silver decorations, but also more popular festivities, such as the throwing of barnyard fowl from the palace loggia to the crowd below, as well as battles between the different families in the city, all took place here, where today tourists sip coffee and motorbikes pass by.
The earliest record of a Basilica of the Holy Apostles relates to one built under Julius I in the mid-fourth century near Trajan’s Forum (in which stands his famous column). A successor to this first church was begun by Pope Pelagius I in the mid sixth century on the present site, being dedicated by Pope John III around 570. At this time the relics of the apostles Ss. Philip and James the Lesser were placed beneath the high altar. While little is known about the lives of these two saints outside of what is given in the Gospels, Philip is believed to have preached in Hieropolis, where he was crucified. James, possibly identifiable with the first bishop of Jerusalem who also presided over the council there as recorded in Acts, was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and beaten to death with a club.
This first basilica reflected Byzantine architectural styles, as Rome was at that time under the control of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. His emissary Narses is recorded as contributing to the erection of the new basilica. Following this the basilica seems to have had a peaceful existence until an earthquake in 1348, which heavily damaged it. Martin V undertook a restoration in 1421, followed by a more extensive one by Sixtus IV and his nephew, the future Julius II, from 1471 to 1484. The Franciscan Order, which staffs the basilica through the present day, arrived here in 1463. A major rebuilding of the church in the early years of the eighteenth century provided them with an opportunity to commemorate their order in the decoration of the church, as we shall shortly see. The façade was completed over a century later, in 1827. Some decades later, the relics of Ss. Philip and James were rediscovered under the high altar in 1873. These are placed in a confessio beneath the sanctuary, built between 1871 and 1879 as a place of prayer for their remains and those of several martyrs brought here from the catacombs.
On top of the facade of the church are statues representing Christ and the Apostles, executed by Carlo Rainaldi in about 1675. Entering the church you quickly get a sense of tranquility. The gold decorations gently reflect the light coming through the great window in the facade, and your eyes are drawn forward to the high altar and its depiction of the martyrdom of Saints Philip and James. This is the largest altarpiece in Rome, being painted by Domenico Muratori in 1715. Above is a fresco depicting the expulsion of the rebellious angels from Heaven, and on the ceiling of the nave is a painting representing the glory of the Franciscan Order.
Just before the main altar is the "confessio" - which you can descend to see the tomb of the Apostles. There are three small chapels at the back of the crypt, with the center one holding the remains of the martyrs Sts. Diodorus, Marcian, Chrysanthius, and Daria. This dark, tomb-like place aids your reflection on their rest, in the hope of the resurrection yet to come.
Taken from PNAC.org and Procedamus in Pace, a Guide to the Station Churches of Rome - published by the Pontifical North American College - Rome.