by Sister Rose Marie
Tulacz, S.N.D., © 2000 NDCREATIONS
The Great Pilgrimage, it's called. Visiting the four
Roman partriarchal basilicas is a long-standing Jubilee Year tradition.
By Joan Merkel Smith
Rome, the Tiber River no longer floods. The bubonic plague no
longer threatens. As a pre-Holy Year 2000 pilgrim to the Eternal
City, I was not concerned with floods and disease. I was there
to discover what the Holy Year 2000 pilgrims would see and experience
to Christian sacred sites, like the tombs of Sts. Peter and
Paul in Rome, is a custom predating the first Holy Year in 1280.
Continuing this custom are millions of pilgrims traveling from
around the world to the Eternal City for what Pope John Paul
II calls “The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.”
Waiting to greet
these modern-day pilgrims is a Rome scrubbed, laundered, painted
and restored. Additional convenient subway stops have been created
especially for this year. Special buses marked “Major Basilicas”
take pilgrims to visit the churches required for special indulgences.
The city, with its lively cafes, outdoor markets and trendy
shopping boutiques, dazzles tourists.
are not just tourists,” says Msgr. Roger Roensch, director of
the bishops’ office for United States visitors to the Vatican.
“To be a pilgrim,” he explains, “is to look for spiritual enrichment,
to grow in faith, hope and charity.” Also, according to Msgr.
Roensch, what makes a pilgrimage is the willingness to sacrifice
for fellow pilgrims and to suffer inconvenience.
will be inconvenience. Rome is overwhelming and always in a
state of construction, restoration and excavation. Work sites
can make walking the city difficult and add to the traffic problem.
Undeterred, though, I began my pilgrimage several months ago,
armed with pilgrim guidebooks and maps.
I quickly realized
that one could spend a lifetime in Rome and not absorb its history
and culture. There are so many layers of civilization—pagan,
republic, imperial and early, medieval and modern Christian—that
it is impossible to grasp them all.
The same is true
about the hundreds of Christian spiritual sites. There are catacombs,
chapels, shrines, tombs and basilicas. Add to them the maze
of ancient streets, encircled by large boulevards clogged with
traffic, and making a pilgrimage becomes a daunting challenge.
But then, whoever said a pilgrim’s life should be easy, especially
during a Holy Year?
plagued every Holy Year since the first one proclaimed by Pope
Boniface VIII. Profiteering was rampant during that Holy Year.
Pilgrims in Rome to find peace with God were charged exorbitant
fees for lodging. It cost them a fortune to feed their horses.
During the 1450 Holy Year, pilgrims to Rome suffered from the
bubonic plague. In the Holy Year of 1475, the Tiber flooded,
causing disaster. Few pilgrims came to Rome for the 1575 Holy
Year because of the Protestant Reformation. Unruly locals preyed
upon the pilgrims who did make it to Rome.
In choosing from
the scores of pilgrim sites to visit, I looked to the four traditional
patriarchal basilicas—St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary
Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) and St. Paul Outside the
Walls. The basilicas honoring Sts. Peter and Paul, the two most
influential voices in the early Church, were designated for
that first Jubilee in 1280. Pope Clement VI added St. John Lateran
in 1350 and Gregory XI added St. Mary Major in 1375. These are
the four sites with the longest history of inclusion in Jubilee
pilgrimage. Each contains a Holy Door, opened only during official
Later, other basilicas—St.
Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Sebastian and the Basilica of
the Holy Cross in Jerusalem—were added to the pilgrim circuit.
Their inclusion started the extended tradition of pilgrimage
to the seven churches.
not visit each basilica. According to Pope John Paul II in his
Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee Year, the faithful can
gain the Jubilee indulgence “...In Rome, if they [pilgrims]
make a pious pilgrimage to one of the patriarchal basilicas
and there take part devoutly in Holy Mass or another liturgical
celebration....” But I set out to see all four.
the First Pope's Tomb
No matter the
number of basilicas on your list, it is at St. Peter’s where
a pilgrimage truly starts. For 20 centuries pilgrims have come
here to pray at the tomb of Peter, the first pope. I, too, began
In true pilgrim
spirit I traversed the warren of medieval streets that lead
from the Quirinale District to the Tiber River. As I walked
these streets, it wasn’t difficult to imagine medieval pilgrims
making their way through the narrow lanes, hardly wide enough
for two people, let alone the horses and carts that threatened
to run them down.
are still needed while ambling through these thoroughfares.
Pedestrians in Rome vie for street space with automobiles and
the ubiquitous motorcycles.
Exiting the old
city, I came to the Tiber at the Ponte Sant’ Angelo with its
honor guard of majestic angels by the famous sculptor, Giovanni
Bernini. Across the bridge, standing guard over the river, is
Castel Sant’Angelo. The massive fortress, surrounding a burial
place for emperors, also served as a prison and papal residence.
It was atop the fortress, so legend says, that Pope Gregory
the Great reported seeing the Archangel Michael during the epidemic
of 587. Shortly after the reported sighting, the epidemic subsided.
Thus, the apparition was believed to be a heavenly sign of mercy.
Walking past the
Castel Sant’Angelo, I entered the Via della Conciliazione (Conciliation
Street) with its spectacular view of St. Peter’s. The basilica
that modern pilgrims marvel at dates from the 16th century.
It was erected over the ruins of a fourth-century basilica built
by the Emperor Constantine. Today St. Peter’s is the largest
Christian church in the world and took more than a century to
build. The immensity of its interior is so great it dwarfs the
papal altar’s five-story baldachino (a permanent ornamental
Visiting St. Peter’s
is an emotional experience for tourist, pilgrim and religious
alike. Youngsters, standing quietly, gaze up into Michelangelo’s
dome with awe. People, some silent, some whispering prayers,
constantly file past a seated 13th-century bronze statue of
St. Peter. They rub the saint’s foot, worn smooth from centuries
of such devotional homage.
St. Peter’s is
a busy pilgrim stop. Hundreds of visitors wait to ascend the
basilica’s dome. People cluster to admire Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Still others celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the
confessionals prominently placed throughout the basilica. There
is so much going on that a pilgrim’s time and energy are easily
For the Holy Year,
Saturday audiences have been added to the ones on Wednesdays.
The pope leads the Angelus at noon on Sundays. The temptation
is to return again and again to St. Peter’s for the spiritual
activities and to linger amidst its magnificence. I had three
more basilicas to visit, however.
pilgrims, many of whom walked barefooted, I hopped the Metro
(subway), which took me to my next destination—the Basilica
of St. John Lateran in the Piazza Porta San Giovanni. This basilica
is the cathedral of Rome, the pope’s special church as Bishop
of Rome. (The word Lateran is derived from the name of
the powerful Roman family on whose land the basilica was built.
It is named after Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.)
Testimony to its
prominence in the world of churches is a Latin motto emblazoned
above the front pillars. Translated it reads, “The Most Holy
Lateran Church, Mother and Head of All the Churches of the City
and of the World.” Popes lived next to this basilica from the
fourth century to 1309.
The original church,
whose foundation was built during the reign of Pope Melchiades
(311-314), suffered numerous disasters through the centuries.
It was sacked twice by barbarians, wrecked by an earthquake
and ruined by two devastating fires. Today, the millennium pilgrim
sees a facade built in 1735 and topped with 15 colossal statues
depicting Jesus Christ, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the
Baptist and Doctors of the Church.
Entering St. John’s
is like walking into history. Echoes of monumental Church events
whisper around the 14th-century Gothic baldachino over the altar
where only the pope says Mass. It was in St. John Lateran that
St. Francis of Assisi received papal permission to found the
Franciscan Order. Pope Boniface VIII announced the first Holy
Year here. Commemorating the event is a 14th-century fresco
by the artist Giotto, showing Boniface with his hand raised
councils met here between 1123 and 1517. In 1929 at the nearby
Lateran Palace, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty, which recognized
Vatican City’s independence.
My next stop,
the Basilica of St. Mary Major, is the largest of Rome’s 26
churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (That’s the reason behind
the word Major.) According to tradition, Pope Liberius
had a dream in 352 that a snowfall on the Esquiline Hill (in
August!) would mark the place where he was to build a shrine.
The next day,
the pope rushed to the Esquiline and found snow. Using it as
a canvas, he drew the design for a basilica. The legend is depicted
in 13th- and 15th-century mosaics that decorate the church.
Enchanting though the legend is, there is no mention of the
basilica before the reign of Pope Sixtus III (432-440), who
is given credit for its building.
St. Mary Major
is a wonderful blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Its ornate ceiling is decorated with the first gold brought
from the New World and donated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella
of Spain. The church is a perfect example of the Roman basilica
with a nave lined with splendid chapels.
Pilgrims who visit
the Borghese or Pauline Chapel will see the Byzantine icon of
the Madonna, revered as the protector of Rome. A tradition exists
that St. Luke painted this image of the Virgin Mary from life,
although it is more likely of Byzantine origin.
at Paul's Resting Place
With time getting
short, I headed (again by Metro) to the last basilica, St. Paul
Outside the Walls. It is Rome’s second-largest church (outside
St. Peter’s) and was built in 324 on the site of St. Paul’s
tomb. The facade pilgrims see today dates from 1854. A devastating
fire in 1823 gutted the original church.
French writer Stendhal witnessed the aftermath of the blaze.
“I visited St. Paul’s on the day of the fire,” he wrote. “The
church was littered with blackened beams, smoking and half-burnt:
Huge fragments of columns, split from top to bottom, threatened
to fall at the slightest tremor.”
was not lost in the fire. Parts of the ancient basilica were
preserved. Also surviving the fire were many ancient artifacts
including the baldachino over St. Paul’s tomb, an 18-foot Easter
candelabrum dating from 1170 and a gilded bronze door that was
cast in Constantinople in 1070.
Of the four patriarchal
basilicas, St. Paul’s is my favorite. It has a soft Mediterranean
flavor, especially noticeable in the outdoor entrance area.
A lovely courtyard is landscaped with royal palm trees and enclosed
by colonnaded porticos.
is serenity about the basilica, the fiery apostle whose name
it bears is certainly in evidence. A dramatic statue of a hooded
St. Paul with sword unsheathed dominates the courtyard. Behind
him, Old Testament prophets look down from a glittering mosaic
When one enters
the church, worldly distractions evaporate. The monumental columns
which divide the church are an austere presence. Yet this austerity
invites prayer and contemplation. Pilgrims, while meditating,
will not fail to notice the cameo paintings of the popes. They
line the upper walls above the columned arches and include the
264 popes to date. Pope John Paul II is above the right aisle,
near the right transept.
serenity of the church extends into the delightful 13th-century
cloisters that, luckily, escaped the fire. Roses bloom amid
boxwood hedges. The covered cloister walkways are lined with
columns—some twisted, some smooth—encrusted with gems and mosaics.
There are all types of artifacts—plaques, inscriptions, urns
and sarcophagi—to be seen. They were recovered from the old
cemetery where St. Paul was buried.
the cloisters, I remembered that it was here that a historic
announcement was made, one that would bring tremendous changes
to the Church. In a room near this basilica, Pope John XXIII
told the cardinals he was calling Vatican Council II.
In coming to the
Eternal City, pilgrims today join the ranks of those who have
been making Holy Year pilgrimages to Rome for seven centuries.
Although the centuries have brought changes, pilgrims in the
year 2000 will follow the footsteps of their early predecessors.
They will pray in basilicas where 17 centuries ago pagan temples
stood. They will pray at the same sites where the first Christians
Like those early
pilgrims, today’s pilgrims—whether confessing sins in St. Peter’s
or visiting other patriarchal basilicas—will pray for reconciliation
with God. In season or out of season, God is present and ready.
Smith has long combined two abiding passions: writing and travel.
In 25 years as a newspaper journalist and editor and now as
a free-lance writer, she has written extensively on travel,
health, history, gardening and architecture. Also a writer of
fiction, she has twice contributed short stories to St.
Anthony Messenger. Married, she has two children and one
Guide to Jubilee Guidebooks
a pilgrim or tourist get the most out of Rome, a good
guidebook is essential. Here are eight new books and their
in Rome: The Official Vatican Guide for the Jubilee Year
2000 (Continuum, 240 pp., $15.95, 5 x 7-1/2 inches).
Focuses on eight major churches, 72 minor ones and seven
catacombs. Includes the Vatican museums and other Christian
churches in Rome. Four maps, beautiful illustrations,
opening and closing times for many places, plus a page
of essential phone numbers.
Prayers: For the Jubilee, by the Central Committee
for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 (Continuum, 248
pp., $15.95, 5 x 7-1/2 inches). Intended as a companion
volume to the book listed above. Begins with excerpts
from the papal bull establishing this Holy Year. Reflections
on seven Jubilee themes, prayer celebrations for seven
main churches plus the catacombs, Mass prayers and various
private prayers. Richly illustrated.
Guide to Rome: The Four Basilicas, the Great Pilgrimage,
by Andrea Braghin (Liturgical Press, 123 pp., $11.95,
4-1/2 x 8 inches). Background on Jubilees since 1280,
Apostles Peter and Paul. Concentrates on the art and architecture
of the four main basilicas. Includes five types of sidebars,
a list of popes and two pages of useful tourist information.
Rome: A Millennium Guide to the Christian Sights (Fodor’s
Travel Publications, 180 pp., $21, 5-3/4 x 9-3/4 inches).
Full introduction to the meaning of the Jubilee, 11 walking
tours within the city, plus a chapter on important sites
nearby. Jubilee section includes various lists, calendar
of religious events, summary of museums, calendar of exhibitions
and section on artists represented. Thoroughly indexed
with nine maps.
2000 in Rome: Guide to the Major Basilicas and Catacombs,
by Joan Lewis (Scepter Publishing, 111 pp., $6.95, 5-1/2
x 8-1/2 inches). Glossary, Jubilees in history, seven
most famous basilicas, four catacombs. Shrine of Divine
Love outside Rome, visiting the Vatican, Jubilee calendar,
Santa Susanna (U.S. parish in Rome). Tips for tourists,
phone numbers, bibliography, seven line drawings. (Fax
number given here for U.S. bishops’ visitor’s office is
correct, but the phone number is not.)
Guide to Rome, by Barrett McGurn (Viking, 205 pp.,
$19.95, 4-3/4 x 7-3/4 inches). Written by a journalist
who lived in Rome for 15 years. Holy Years in history,
events for Jubilee 2000, guide to St. Peter’s Basilica,
Vatican City, Vatican museums, catacombs. Pilgrimage churches,
English-speaking Catholic churches in Rome and other Christian
churches there. Nine walking tours, lots of practical
Guide to Rome and the Holy Land for the Third Millennium,
by Aurelia A. Hagstrom and Irene Vaisviliate (Thomas More,
272 pp., $14.95, 6 x 7-1/2 inches). Provides “basic information
and spiritual reflection that will help the pilgrim to
both appreciate the places, art works and history and
to encounter God in the midst of them.” Reflections on
Jubilee and religious pilgrimage, guide to Jerusalem,
Bethlehem and Nazareth. Rome section begins on p. 147,
guide to the four major basilicas, 50 photographs, index.
(Eyewitness Travel Guides, DK Publishing, 432 pp.,
$24.95, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches). Major subdivisions are:
Introducing Rome, Rome Area by Area (16 of them), Travelers’
Needs and Survival Guide. Over 1,200 photos, many maps,
information on nearby sites. Six walking tours, guides
to hotels, restaurants and shops in all price ranges,
transportation. Special section on children’s Rome. 10-page
street finder section, 24-page index.