The city of Rome in Italy has been witness to some of the most important events in western civilization. A significant number of those events have been religious in nature, so it’s no surprise that the Eternal City is the destination of many Catholic pilgrims each and every year. When in Rome, one thing you won’t lack for is religious sites to visit. Here are some of the most important places that you ought to schedule some time to see. (Note: Vatican City destinations are not covered in this article.)
Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs)
The Scala Sancta are 28 marble stairs that are said to have been transported from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem to Rome as far back as the year 326. According to Catholic tradition, these are the very steps that Jesus climbed when He was brought before Pilate. As a result, the stairs are considered to be very holy. In fact, religious pilgrims and other visitors are only allowed to ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees. On any given day, you can see quite a few people engaging in this devotional practice. There are additional stairs on either side of the Scala Sancta for people who prefer to walk in a more traditional manner.
The Catacombs of St. Callixtus
The story of the Roman catacombs is pretty familiar to most people. In the early stages of Christianity, adherents to that religion faced extreme persecution in Rome. They had to meet in secret, were scared to acknowledge their beliefs in public, and did not have cemeteries where they could properly bury their dead. So they took to burying their dead deep underground in a series of tunnels that became known as the catacombs.
Today, you can venture through the dark, chilly, and solemn catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome. Of particular importance are the Crypt of the Popes and the Crypt of St. Cecilia. The Crypt of the Popes contains the remains of no less than nine early Christian popes. They are: St. Antherus, St. Dionysius, St. Eutichian, St. Fabian, St. Felix, St. Lucius I, St. Pontianus, St. Sixtus II, and St. Stephen.
The Crypt of St. Cecilia currently contains a statue representing the position of her body when her sarcophagus was discovered. St. Cecilia is depicted holding out three fingers on one hand and one finger on the other, which is said to symbolize her belief in the Holy Trinity.
San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains)
Many early Christians were martyred very near where the current St. Peter in Chains church is situated. Among those martyrs were St. Peter and St. Paul. On display under the church’s altar are some chains, which according to Christian tradition were the exact ones used to bind St. Peter’s hands when he was captured and persecuted.
Also of note in the church is a sculpture by Michelangelo. His Moses statue, completed in 1545, is one of his most famous works. The sculpture, which has been studied and revered for hundreds of years, shows a seated Moses, and is nearly eight feet tall.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of St. Mary Major)
The Basilica of St. Mary Major is one of the oldest churches in Rome and is of course dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Construction of the church was completed in the 5th century under the rule of Pope Sixtus III. Saint Mary Major is widely renowned for its stunning architecture and artwork, including: the highest bell tower in Rome, mosaic artwork, Athenian columns, and a gilded ceiling. Under the Blessed Sacrament chapel is a crypt containing the remains of St. Jerome, who is most remembered for translating the Bible into Latin, which made it accessible to common people (thus the Latin version is called the Vulgate).
The Basilica of St. Mary Major is still a very prominent part of Catholicism today. In fact, every year on August 15, the Pope visits the church to celebrate mass. August 15, incidentally, is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, which is why it’s such a special day.
During other days of the year, a specially-appointed archpriest presides over the church, occasionally saying Mass and receiving visiting dignitaries from other countries.