“Station at the Twelve Apostles” is what you will read in your missal for the Mass for Easter Thursday. Before a Catholic visits Rome, these references to where the Holy Father would traditionally celebrate Mass on a given day seem misty and obscure. “I wonder what the Church of the Twelve Apostles looks like,” one might wonder. But after a Catholic visits Rome, the memory of the various churches, relics, and the very soil of Rome reminds him that while this world is passing, we can get a glimpse into the eternal while in the Eternal City.
I was blessed to live in Rome as a young college student. During my semester there I visited close to 100 churches and prayed at the tombs of countless saints. As I have gone back for shorter visits over the years, I have become more and more impressed with the unbelievable treasures and relics that it houses, and how strong of a testimony all of it still bears, centuries and millennia on.
The Major Basilicas
There is, of course, St. Peter’s, with its majesty and history. The baldacchino over the high altar towers over what is, in the end, a small space: the tomb of St. Peter. Its majesty reflects the grandeur of the Papacy and its legacy over the centuries since Our Lord first established it.
St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran are a ten minute walk from each other, but far from the Vatican, where the Popes have more recently lodged. The Lateran is next to the Scala Santa, wherein the steps Our Lord ascended to be judged by Pilate are, and we are permitted now to ascend on our knees.
St. Paul’s Outside the Walls dates from 1840 because the old one burned to the ground in an unfortunate fire. You will see when you walk through it how very new it feels. It almost has the feel of a just-made church, despite the ancient relics it houses.
The Minor Basilicas
The remaining three basilicas are slightly harder to get to and remind moderns (with shame) that these used to be visited on foot by pilgrims who didn’t have metros, buses, or taxis to aid them. There is Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which houses many relics of the Crucifixion, including part of the Titulus, which named Our Lord as King of the Jews, a nail which pierced Our Lord’s body, and thorns from the Crown of Thorns.
St. Sebastian and St. Lawrence are both “outside the walls” and pay tribute to some of these earliest witnesses of the Faith. St. Lawrence is located next to an enormous graveyard and St. Sebastian is on the old Appian Way and is an entry point into the Catacombs, those dearest tunnels of the early ages of Faith.
A City Stamped by Catholicism
Despite the forceful taking of the Papal States and the secular Italian government which now governs the state of Italy from the home of the Popes, the city is still indelibly Catholic in character. The churches smell of the candlesmoke of centuries. Fountains and obelisks are topped by the cross when you don’t run into statues of Our Lady and reliefs of saints in doorways, on street corners, and in small shrines.
There is of course the charm of the urban design of Rome itself, a city thousands of years old, to say nothing of traditional Roman cuisine, which stands apart from what is known as “Italian food” worldwide. But that’s only an additional blessing for Catholics. The Faith is, in a way, collected and on display in Rome, in all its challenges and triumphs. It is there we go to drink at a deep well of Christian witness, to pray at the tombs of saints and in front of precious relics, and to capture memories and edification for ourselves that will last in all those quiet moments we are at home and far away from the Eternal City.
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