ROME — “SILENZIO!” says the sign just past the massive bronze doors marking the entrance to St. Mary and the Martyrs Catholic Church in Rome, one of the most important churches in Christian history. Yet, if you got into a Roman cab and asked to go to St. Mary and the Martyrs, you’d likely get a blank stare from the driver. No one uses the name of the church.
This is the Pantheon, and despite the altar at the back, it is revered not as a Catholic church, but as the great temple to all gods that was finished by the pagan Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. Though Hadrian put it up, Pope Boniface IV is the man who ensured that it wasn’t taken down.
The newest pope, Francis, ruling from nearby Vatican City, won’t hold the power of his predecessors in the Middle Ages. The pope is no longer the spiritual leader of a vast unified empire. Nor is he the temporal ruler of The Papal States that once stretched across much of northern Italy.
Though his voice is heard throughout the world, all Francis has to truly rule is the Holy See, based in Vatican City, one of the world’s smallest countries. It stretches a mere 0.2 square miles, entirely surrounded by Rome. .
From the throne of St. Peter, the pope continues to wield great influence upon Rome, spiritual home of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
There is little in Rome that has not been influenced by popes. But for the visitor, here are some of the more interesting sites to visit. As a new era begins for the church, visitors can trace history by visiting places important to the men who have worn “The Shoes of the Fisherman.”
It’s known as the world’s best-preserved ancient building. Built as a temple to “all gods” (pan theos), it’s renowned for the perfect spherical dimensions of its interior. A thick shaft of light flows into the space from a large circular hole – called an oculus (“eye”) – at the apex of the domed roof. It’s a design copied around the world.
The Pantheon was ordered shut, along with Rome’s other pagan temples, in 356. The temple was saved by Pope Boniface’s edict converting it to a church. The decision allows modern visitors to see the brilliance of classic Roman Empire design. Inside are the tombs of kings Victor Emmanuel II and III, along with that of the artist Raphael, whose decoration of the papal apartments in the Vatican is second only to Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, the Vatican dome and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel as artistic treasures of the church in Rome.
Look for: A thunderstorm. Few sights are as dramatic as going to the Pantheon in heavy rain, the water flowing through the oculus onto the marble floor and down into the recessed drains. Lightning illuminates the walls in blue light.
Beginning in 80 A.D., the Colosseum was home to spectacles in which tens of thousands, likely including some Christians, were killed in games or public executions. But in the early Middle Ages, it was not considered a sacred Christian place, as evidenced by the large amount of masonry carted away for use on other projects. By the 16th century, though, popes had declared it the site of martyrdom and it was included on pilgrimage routes.
Today, the pope each year leads a “Way of the Cross” procession on Good Friday at the Colosseum. The martyrdom of Christians at the Colosseum is commemorated by a large, plain cross on the first level of the stadium, as well as a plaque in Latin affixed above the main entrance .
Look for: Missing marble. The Colosseum was once clad in travertine marble, giving it a white sheen. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the marble was used for other buildings. The front steps of St. Peter’s Basilica include marble from the Colosseum.
This was opened in 139 as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his family, but by medieval times Hadrian had been evicted and his cylindrical tomb turned into a convenient fortress for pope-fleeing invaders descending on Rome or urban riots welling up within the city walls. An elevated walkway was built from the papal apartment in St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo, allowing pontiffs to flee to a stronghold without having to set foot on city streets. Today, it is a museum with a popular rooftop cafe that’s the perfect setting to gaze out at Rome on a warm day.
Look for: Pons Aelius, the second-century bridge that stretches from Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber to the old city of Rome. Known as Ponte Sant’Angelo, it’s a much simpler space than in the distant past. Homes and a triumphal arch once stood on the bridge, until its foundations began to crack and the extra structures were stripped away in the 17th century. Today, it is a pedestrian-only space.
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
Well outside Rome’s tourist areas is the seat of the bishop of Rome, aka the pope, the official home church of the leader of Catholicism.
Built on the site of a palace from the time of Emperor Nero, the complex that included a palace and chapels was built to house the popes, most of whom lived here until the 14th century. A basilica has stood on the site since the fourth century. The oldest element of the complex is the world’s largest obelisk – an Egyptian treasure dating to the 15th century B.C..
The church was where popes were crowned. But with the occupation of Rome by Italian forces uniting the kingdom, popes refused to use the church – Pius XI refused to even leave the Vatican, claiming that he was a prisoner. An uneasy truce was maintained for 59 years until dictator Benito Mussolini hammered out the Lateran Treaty in 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. It created the Vatican State and exempted church holdings outside of the Vatican from taxes. Though much of the statesmanship of the Fascist era was later repealed, the Lateran Treaty remains in force and is the reason the Vatican has a nonvoting seat in the United Nations.
Look for: The bronze doors. These massive, second-century doors were taken from the ancient Roman Senate, an example of the frequent “repurposing” of classic architectural elements onto new buildings.
The sacred steps
The faithful believe the Sacred Steps are the marble stairs that Jesus climbed to see Pontius Pilate on his way to crucifixion. Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited the Holy Land from 326 to 328 and returned with several relics, including the 28 steps.
Today, the steps are housed in a chapel used by the pope just across the street from the Lateran cathedral. They are covered in wood, except for small holes left to show spots believed to be the blood of Christ. The faithful climb the steps on their knees. At the top is the Sanctum Sanctorum, the personal chapel of the popes when they resided at the nearby Lateran Palace.
Look for: A warning. A sign at the bottom reminds penitents that it is not enough to simply make the journey to the top – confession to a priest is required for the full benefits of the arduous climb to be fulfilled.
The capital of Catholicism
Though the term “Rome” is still used to signify the Catholic Church, the modern center is in Vatican City, since 1929 a separate country from Italy. The term “Vatican” predates the papal period. The Ager Vaticanus was an area that included the Circus of Nero. Its importance to the church derives from being the site where St. Peter, the disciple of Jesus and first pope, was martyred. Peter was to be crucified but said he was unworthy to die as Jesus had and was nailed to the cross upside down.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Pope Francis was first seen as the new leader of the church from a balcony next to the cathedral in Vatican City. The earlier St. Peter’s Basilica was in danger of falling down in the 15th century, when the Catholic Church embarked on creating the largest church in the world. Begun in 1506, it was an epic undertaking that would not be officially consecrated for more than a century, in 1626. It remains the world’s largest church, twice the size of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The square in front of the cathedral can hold more than 150,000 people, as it did during Pope Benedict XVI’s final audience in February. Its greatest art treasure is the Pieta, the sculpture by Michelangelo of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus after he was taken off the cross.
Look for: St. Peter’s right foot. A 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter is a popular pilgrimage spot for the faithful, who touch his extended right foot. The toll of so many hands over so many centuries has worn the foot smooth, so that the toes have all but disappeared.
The glorious chapel covered from wall to ceiling by Michelangelo frescoes was where the 115 cardinals met to select the new pope. The cardinals placed their votes in a chalice in front of “The Last Judgment.” The frescoes, painted between 1508 and 1512, are one of the top attractions in Rome. It was off limits during the voting, but Vatican workers moved rapidly after the election of Francis to get it ready for visitors in time for Holy Week.
Look for: The small external chimney that expelled white smoke March 13, signaling Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th pope.