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Jubilee in Rome: A Pilgrim's Report


Photo 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

Multilayered History

At the First Pope's Tomb

Pope's Cathedral

Miracle From Mary

Serenity at Paul's Resting Place

In the Footsteps

A Guide to Jubilee Guidebooks


In 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 in Rome.

Making pilgrimages 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.

“Yet pilgrims 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.

There certainly 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.

Multilayered History

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?

Troubles have 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 Jubilee years.

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.

Pilgrims need 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.

At 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 there.

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.

Quick reflexes 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 canopy).

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 exhausted.

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.

Pope's Cathedral

Unlike ancient 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 in blessing.

Six ecumenical 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.

Miracle From Mary

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.

Serenity 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.

The 19th-century 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.”

Fortunately, all 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.

Although there 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 facade.

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.

The spiritual 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.

While exploring 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 the Footsteps

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 were martyred.

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.

Joan Merkel 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 grandson.

A Guide to Jubilee Guidebooks

by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

To help a pilgrim or tourist get the most out of Rome, a good guidebook is essential. Here are eight new books and their unique features:

Pilgrims 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.

Pilgrim 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.

The Jubilee 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. Lavishly illustrated.

Holy 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.

Jubilee 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.)

The Pilgrim’s 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 information.

A Pilgrim’s 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.

Rome (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.




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