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A Portal to the Past: The Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome

Rome is, above almost all other destinations, a place in which history is everywhere. Few places on Earth have such a long and storied history, with well over two thousand years’ worth of tales stacked on top of each other, seamlessly integrated into the modern metropolis.

From ruined ancient monuments to religious buildings that defy scale, from art galleries of some of the finest masterpieces of all time to contemporary cuisine and culture, Rome is a city that fuses old and new. The cliche holds that all roads lead to Rome, and in this rare event, that is true.

Today we will not discuss the ancient city, but the legacy of it. The last two thousand years have seen the Catholic Church dominate Rome and make it the centre point of the religion worldwide, with pilgrims flocking from around the globe to visit. This makes the city one of the best places in the world to visit for religious architecture and art, all gathered around the seven most important churches: the Pilgrim Churches of Rome.

The Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome

Any religiously-orientated tour of Rome is going to start at the Vatican, so it is fitting that ours does too. St Peter’s Basilica, the centre of Catholicism worldwide, is one of the greatest examples of religious architecture to be found anywhere. But you already knew that. It’s also home to the remains of countless saints, ranging from Apostle Peter to Pope John Paul II. Again, you probably already knew that. And, of course, it is adjacent to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, home to arguably the greatest masterpiece of the greatest artist of the Renaissance, Michaelangelo’s ornate ceiling.

So what is there new to say about it? Well, one could consider that it isn’t actually a cathedral: the seat of the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope) is actually St John Lateran - more on which later. Or you might say that, while people think of it as the largest church in the world, it only is if you’re a Catholic: the twin mosques of Mecca and Medina are both bigger, as is the Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Whatever your religious persuasion, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of the place, however, and by the opulence of it all - which is a theme that will continue.

Our next stop is a bit of a trek away, but well worth the effort. St Paul Outside-the-Walls is, as one might expect, outside of the ancient walls of Rome, well to the south of the Vatican. It commemorates the burial place of St Paul - ensuring a permanent position on any rundown of the pilgrimage sights of Rome - and, for those that make the effort to travel there, is a rewarding location.

While many sights in Rome can boast art from the golden age of the Renaissance, St Paul’s was destroyed by fire in 1823 and thus totally reconstructed. Instead of the usual pomp, it is instead home to art sent from around the world, such as items sent by the Tsar of Russia and the Viceroy of Egypt to assist in the recovery of the church. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have the flair of other pilgrimage churches in Rome - for it certainly does - but St Paul’s does offer a contrast to the triumphalism of the other six.

The central cluster of Pilgrimage Churches of Rome

Back in the city, we find a grouping of four of the most important churches to any pilgrim in Rome: St John Lateran, Holy Cross in Jerusalem, St Lawrence Outside-the-Walls and St Mary Major, better known as Santa Maria Maggiore. We begin with the most southernly, St John Lateran. It is perhaps the most important religious site beyond the Vatican, as it is the seat of the Pope in his role as the Bishop of Rome - indeed, it is technically the most important of the lot.

Inside, this grandeur is to be seen everywhere. The altar is thought to contain relics of the original church used by St Peter in the earliest days of the Catholic Church, while flanking the main area of the church can be found statues of the Twelve Apostles - with, of course, Judas replaced by St Paul. The statues were commissioned as part of contest in 1702, with the leading sculptors of the time competing to get their work positioned in this most important of locations.

On from St John Lateran is Holy Cross in Jerusalem, so named because the original structure was constructed to house artifacts from the Passion of the Christ. Relics included everything from pieces of the cross itself to dirt from Jerusalem, which was strewn across the floor of the church - thus the name “in Jerusalem” refers to the soil on the floor rather than the actual location of the building.

After Holy Cross in Jerusalem comes St Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, again transversing the original boundaries of the city. It lies in the heart of the Tiburtino quarter and holds an importance to local Romans beyond perhaps any of the other churches, as it is attached one of the major cemeteries of the city. It was named for St Lawrence, himself martyred in Rome in 258AD, and hosts hundreds of funerals every year. If the weather is fine, a wander through the graves is always in order, and gives tourists an idea of the religious life of ordinary people that goes beyond the gold and the artworks. A pilgrimage to Rome’s seven most important churches is supposed to take in the splendour of the Catholic Church, but it should be remembered that the religion is still a daily feature in the life of the city and its inhabitants - and nowhere shows this more than St Lawrence.

The hidden gem of Rome’s Seven Pilgrim Churches

After the reflection, it is time to return to the bombastic style of Rome’s pilgrim churches, and of the seven, few can compete with Santa Maria Maggiore. The location of the church is somewhat incongruous - it is right by the main train station in a somewhat dilapidated district - but once you get inside, the church is a sight to behold. Firstly, it is hard not to mention the ceiling: it is solid gold and, for a euro or two, there is a switch on the right-hand side of the church that illuminates the huge frescoes above. Moving on towards the altar, one can find the Crypt of the Nativity, a massive structure with, at its heart, the Reliquary of the Holy Crib, said to contain fragments of the crib of Jesus Christ. Beyond that again, there is the Borghese Chapel, which features the oldest image of the Virgin Mary in all of Rome, dated to at least 590AD. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s the tomb of Bernini, architect of some of Rome’s finest religious buildings.

If you wanted to tour the grandest sights of Rome, experience the elegance and sheer, bewildering wealth of the Catholic Church, then you could find all of that and more in Santa Maria Maggiore. Amazingly, given the artifacts inside, it is usually relatively quiet as well, so if the queue at St Peter’s is too long - and it often is - then it can provide a worthwhile alternative.

The seventh Pilgrim Church of Rome is Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore, aka Our Lady of Divine Love, and it occupies a unique place on the list. Firstly, it is 20km from the Vatican and a decent drive outside of the city. Secondly, it has only been a recognised Pilgrim Church of Rome since the Year 2000, when Pope John Paul II conferred the honour on it ahead of the long-standing seventh church, St Sebastian Outside-the-Walls.

While Our Lady of Divine Love had long been a site of pilgrimage, it was decided that the Jubilee 2000 initiative of the Catholic Church would inaugurate a new church on the list for the millions of pilgrims who made the trip that year. A new church took the place of the original shrine in 1999 and presents a modern contrast to the Renaissance-heavy itinerary of any tour of Rome.

While the number of official pilgrims to Rome walking the Seven Churches has probably declined over the years, the number of visitors has never been higher. The traditional route for Catholic devotees to follow provides as good an overview of the key religious sites of Rome as any tour can, and can be enjoyed by tourists, religious or not. And hey - if you get a Papal indulgence at the end of it, then all the better. You’ll have earned it.

Download Francesco Gabbadini's walking tour of Rome to discover more about this wonderfully historic and interesting city.

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