Churches of Roma


Paul with the sword that is weapon of his martyrdom (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

“San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls), a basilica built by Constantine over the grave of St. Paul, the Apostle, was replaced starting in 386 by a structure mammoth for its time. It was faithfully restored after a fire in 1823 and thus remains an outstanding example of early basilical architecture.” Encyclopedia Britannica

Peter is on the left and Francis is illuminated on the right (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

When one stands in the nave of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, one can see the first Pope, Peter, and the current Pope, Francis, almost side by side.


San Giovanni in Laterano (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

“This sacred building was the first great Christian church ever built, its construction taking place even before the echo of the momentous edict of A.D. 313 had faded. The ancient basilica was raised on the Lateran property in the southwest corner of the city by order of the Emperor Constantine, who named it in honor of Our Lord: Basilica Salvatoris. In the time of Nero, Plautus Lateranus was a leading member of Roman society and an extensive landholder. Caught in an assassination plot against the demented ruler, he was executed, his land confiscated and declared state property. After ending the persecutions, Constantine gave this property to the Christian community for the purpose of erecting there a temple for public worship. He also commissioned the building of an adjacent palace to serve as the papal residence.” Frank J. Korn

The heads of Peter and Paul are conserved in San Giovanni in Laterano (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

Dante described his impression of San Giovanni in Laterano in the Divine Comedy
“If the barbarians from the distant land coming to Rome were astonished by her great monuments, when above all of which rose the Lateran, just imagine how moved was I.”


The original manger of Christ is preserved in Santa Maria Maggiore (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

“Located on the Esquiline Hill, Santa Maria Maggiore was founded in 432, just after the Council of Ephesus in 431, which upheld the belief that Mary truly was the mother of God; it was thus the first great church of Mary in Rome. Behind its Neoclassic facade (1741–43), the original basilica has resisted change. Most of the mosaics, lining the walls and bursting with blue and gold around the altar, date from the time it was built. When a new apse was added in the 13th century, it was also decorated with mosaics. Although the ceiling is Renaissance, the slabs of fine marble and the Classical columns are pieces of original plunder from other buildings. The great treasure of the church is the Crib of Christ relic, five pieces of wood connected by bits of metal. According to tradition, Pope Liberius (reigned 352–366) had a vision of Mary, who told him to erect a church where snow would fall, miraculously, on the night of August 5. In remembrance, it “snows” white flower petals from the roof of the Pope Paul V chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore every August 5. In 1993 the basilica suffered some damage from a bomb.” Encyclopedia Britannica

The tomb of Bernini in Santa Maria Maggiore (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)



“The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important of Rome. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemeterial complex which occupies an area of 90 acres, with a network of galleries about 12 miles long, in four levels, more than twenty meters deep. In it were buried tens of martyrs, 16 popes and very many Christians…The underground cemetery includes several areas. The area of the Popes is the most important and venerated crypt of the cemetery, called “the little Vatican” as it was the official burial place of nine popes and, probably, of eight dignitaries of Rome’s 3rd century Church. In the walls you can still see the original inscriptions, in Greek, of five popes. On four tombstones, near the name of the pope, there is the title of “bishop”, since the Pope was regarded as the head of the Church of Rome, and on two of them there is the Greek abbreviation of MPT for “Martyr”…In the first century Rome’s Christians did not have their own cemeteries.If they owned land, they buried their relatives there, otherwise they resorted to common cemeteries, where pagans too were buried. That is how Saint Peter came to be buried in the great public “necropolis” (“city of the dead”) on Vatican Hill…In the first half of the second century, as a result of various grants and donations, the Christians started burying their dead underground. That is how the catacombs were founded. Many of them began and developed around family tombs, whose owners, newly converted Christians, did not reserve them to the members of the family, but opened them to their brethren in the faith. With the passage of time, these burial areas grew larger by gifts or by the purchase of new properties, sometimes on the initiative of the Church itself. Typical is the case of Saint Callixtus: the Church took up directly the organization and administration of the cemetery, assuming a community character.”


Crypta Cappuccini (Photo in Public Domain)

“In 1775, the Marquis de Sade wrote of it, “I have never seen anything more striking.” Granted, the crypt was to his tastes. Mark Twain wrote about it in his 1869 book Innocents Abroad. When Twain asked one of the monks what would happen when he died, the monk responded, “We must all lie here at last.” And lie there they do. Some 4,000 Capuchin friars who died between 1528 and 1870 are still lying, hanging, and generally adorning the Santa Maria della Concezione crypt in Rome. In 1631, the Capuchin friars, so-called because of the “capuche” or hood attached to their religious habit, left the friary of St. Bonaventure near the Trevi Fountain and came to live at Santa Maria della Concezione, of which only the church and crypt remain. They were ordered by Cardinal Antonio Barberini (the Pope’s brother and a member of the Capuchin order) to bring the remains of the deceased friars along with them to their new home so that all the Capuchin friars might be in one place. Rather than simply burying the remains of their dead brethren, the monks decorated the walls of the crypts with their bones as a way of reminding themselves that death could come at any time. A plaque in the crypt reads, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”


Santa Maria della Vittoria is home to Bernini’s Catholic sculpture “Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.” See a photograph of Bernini’s masterpiece and read Saint Teresa’s account of her interaction with an angel on this page: The Life of Teresa of Jesus by Saint Teresa of Avila.


“There is no pilgrim who has come to Rome without desiring to visit the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs. It is one of the most important and renowned sanctuaries in the Roman Catholic Church. Situated near the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the Sanctuary houses the Sancta Sanctorum, recognized as the first private Papal chapel. The sanctuary gets its name from the 28 marble steps of the Holy Stairs. According to an ancient Christian tradition, Saint Helena (†335), the mother of Constantine, had the stairs transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem to Rome. It is believed that Jesus climbed these stairs several times the day he was sentenced to death, thus, they are known as the “Scala Pilati” or “Scala Sancta” (the Holy Stairs or Pilate’s Stairs). The Sanctuary, as part of the Holy See, according to the 1929 Lateran pact between Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church, has the all the rights of extraterritoriality.”


Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.

Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gibbon, Edward. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. London. Frederick Westley and A.H. Davis. 1837.

Kleiner, Diana E E. Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide. Yale University Press, 2014.

Korn, Frank J. A Catholic’s Guide to Rome: Discovering the Soul of the Eternal City. Paulist Press, 2000.

Macadam, Alta, and A. B. Barber. Rome. Blue Guides Limited, 2020.

Steves, Rick. Rick Steves Italy. Avalon Travel, 2019.

Testa, Judith. Rome Is Love Spelled Backward: Enjoying Art and Architecture in the Eternal City. Northern Illinois University Press, 1998.

John William Bailly 14 April 2018

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