According to a local saying, in Rome there are more than 360 churches, one for each day of the year. The three churches we are going to see on this tour are known as the papal basilicas, since they are part of the Vatican, even though they are located in different areas of the city, and they are the ones catholic pilgrims are expected to visit during the Holy Year celebrations.
The most famous church in Rome is certainly St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican; but few people know that St. Peter’s is neither the oldest nor the most important church in Rome. That would be St. John Lateran, the official seat of Rome’s bishop (that’s the Pope!) and as such the most important church in the city and in the world (“Mother and Head of all Churches”) – as well as the oldest official worshipping place of the Christian community in Rome.
The light-filled interior was redesigned in the 1600’s, and is a mix of different styles: it’s hard to know where to look first, whether at the colorful mosaic floor, the carved ceiling, or the impressive statues of the Apostles flanking the nave.
Next to the basilica of St. John you find the so-called Holy Steps, the medieval staircase leading up to a little chapel known as the Sancta Sanctorum (the “holy of holies”). Pilgrims have been going up these steps on their knees for centuries, as some still do today.
Saint Mary Major, the largest Roman church dedicated to the Virgin, boasts one of the best preserved mosaic cycles of Early Christian times. The gilded ceiling and resplendent mosaics make you feel like you are looking at a treasure chest, while the side chapels could count as beautiful churches on their own right.
Saint Paul Outside the Walls is located on the outskirts of the city centre, beyond the ancient Roman city walls (hence the name!). It’s the second largest church in town after St. Peter’s, and a very important place of pilgrimage, having been built on the tomb of the Apostle Paul. Actually, the church was severely damaged by a fire in 1823, and what you see today is the result of a careful restoration. It’s every bit as impressive as St. Peter’s, and the big plus is that there are way less visitors here, so you can really enjoy the beauty of this serene, majestic building.