By Nicole Pellicano*
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In the past, a pilgrimage to Rome lasted weeks. It included visiting churches, touring the catacombs, following in the footsteps of saints and praying at historic sites in and outside the city. During the first Holy Year in 1300, the minimum requirement for a plenary indulgence was to pray at Rome’s patriarchal basilicas 15 times over the course of a number of weeks. Today, most visitors do not stay that long.
This extraordinary Year of Mercy is a way to stress the importance of forgiveness and renewing one’s relationship with God. The Holy Door, symbolizing the doorway of salvation (read more here), marks the “extraordinary” spiritual passage offered to the faithful during a jubilee year. Of the seven major Holy Doors in the world, four are in Rome. In addition to the doors at the four major basilicas in Rome, there are a number of other important religious sites a pilgrim should visit.
To make things easier for pilgrims short on time, we drew up a list of the top nine sites in Rome using a traditional pilgrim journey as a guide. For those who can’t make a trip to the Eternal City, follow the links for a virtual pilgrimage through Rome.
Stop 1: Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
Your first stop, a bit outside of the historic center of Rome, was built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Rebuilt after a fire in the 19th century, the basilica’s bronze holy door survived the fire. St. John XXIII had the doors restored completely; the 54 bronze panels represent characters of the Old and New Testaments, including an image of the crucifixion of St. Paul. The door will open Dec 13, 2015.
During the 4th century what are believed to be the remains of the apostle Paul’s were place in a sarcophagus, which is now believed to be below a marble tombstone in the basilica’s crypt bearing the inscription “PAULO APOSTOLO MART.”
Read more about early Christian devotion to St. Paul and ancient pilgrimages to his tomb here.
Stop 2: Catacombs of St. Callixtus
Less than four miles up the road from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls are the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. Rome has more than 60 catacombs with hundreds of miles of tunnels carved into the tufo (soft volcanic rock) and tens of thousands of tombs. Roman law forbade burials within the city limits.
If you can’t make it to the St. Callixtus catacombs, there are a number of other ones worth your while. As recently as five years ago archaeologists discovered ancient artwork in the Catacombs of St. Thecla. You can read more about it here.
Stop 3: Basilica of St. John Lateran
While a far walk from the catacombs, the Basilica of St. John Lateran is a sight you definitely cannot miss. The basilica is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. The Holy Door here depicts Jesus on the Cross with Mary beneath him, holding and nurturing an infant Jesus. A piece of what tradition holds to be the Holy Sponge is preserved here. According to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion, a sponge was dipped in vinegar and offered to Christ to drink as he was on the cross.
A newly elected pope — who is also Bishop of Rome — celebrates Mass here as he “takes possession” of the diocesan cathedral.
Stop 4: The Holy Stairs
Walk across the street from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Holy Stairs. The “Scala Sancta” are a set of 28 white marble steps encased in a protective wooden framework. Tradition holds them to be the steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem on which Jesus Christ stepped on his way to trial during the passion. The steps are believed to have been brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena. While the stairs are climbed in prayer on ones knees, there are also staircases on each side of the Holy Stairs for those who wish to walk.
While world-famous art housed in Rome’s churches and chapels have risked turning sacred spaces into tourist spots, the Holy Stairs has managed to hold onto its spiritual side. Read more, and watch CNS coverage of the resurrection of the Holy Stairs, here.
Stop 5: Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
Head east from the Holy Stairs to your next destination. The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem houses several important relics that warrant a visit. In the Chapel of the Relics you can find parts of what is revered as the Elogium, the sign hung on Christ’s cross. You will also find two thorns from what legend holds is Jesus’ crown of thorns, pieces of wood, and a nail, which tradition says is from Jesus’ cross. A larger piece of what was revered as the true cross was taken from the basilica on the instructions of Pope Urban VII in 1629 and can now be found in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Read here about what role relics have in the Catholic Church.
Stop 6: Basilica of St. Mary Major
Heading back to the center of Rome, stop at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The site for the church was chosen in the 4th century after a miraculous August snowfall. The Holy Door here was blessed by St. John Paul II on Dec. 8, 2001, and was donated to the basilica by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Depicted on the panels is the resurrection of Christ. Relics found inside the basilica include a piece of the Holy Sponge and what is believed to be a piece of Jesus’ crib.
Read more about the significance of St. Mary Major in this CNS article.
Stop 7: The Pantheon
The Pantheon is a popular tourist stop for most people visiting the city, but what many may not know is that it originally was dedicated to “pan theos,” meaning “all the gods.” It wasn’t until after the year 609 that it was consecrated as a Christian church, making it the first pagan temple in Rome to be Christianized. When it became a church it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all of the martyrs. Inside you can find a number of monumental tombs set into the walls, including those of the artist Raphael and Kings Victor Emanuel II and Umberto I.
Stop 8: Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere
Across the river is the Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere. Tradition holds that on the day Christ was born a stream of pure oil flowed from the earth on the site of the church, signifying the coming of the grace of God. Inside the basilica you will find 22 granite columns, all taken from the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. One column marked with the inscriptions FONS OLEI marks the spot of the miraculous flow of oil. You will also find a relic of St. Apollonia and a portion of the Holy Sponge.
Stop 9: St. Peter’s Basilica
Our final destination is located in Vatican City, home to the primary Holy Door, as well as a long list of relics. The bronze Holy Door, also known as the “Door of the Great Pardon,” found at the entrance to the basilica was donated by Swiss Catholics and installed in 1949, replacing wooden doors that had been used the previous 200 years. Each panel portrays scenes of human sin and redemption through the mercy of God.
Between the panels are the coats of arms of all the popes who have opened the door during the ordinary Holy Years; the last pope to do so was St. John Paul II. Pope Francis’ coat of arms will be etched into one of the empty shieldd after he opens and closes the door.
Due to the number of pilgrims expected to visit St. Peter’s during the Year of Mercy, Vatican officials have adopted a reservation system for pilgrims who want to cross the threshold of the Holy Door. Read more about the plan here, and be sure to book your spot here.
*Nicole Pellicano, a student at Villanova University, is an intern this semester in the Rome Bureau of Catholic News Service.