Feeling overwhelmed by Rome’s Catholic iconography and landmarks must go back to at least the 1500s, when Philip Neri formed his itinerary of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome. This list plays like a highlight reel of important Catholic churches in Rome and Vatican City. Neri’s pilgrims would complete the walk to all seven churches in one day, setting out before dawn. However, when I spent a week in Rome in autumn of 2023, Neri’s itinerary directed me each day to a new and unique area of Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica is, by most measures, the most grandiose Catholic church in the entire world. It is in Vatican City. This Renaissance-era basilica was designed in part by Michelangelo and is so entrenched in Catholic importance that it is hard to overstate its influence. St. Peter’s is where the pope attends liturgies. Inside is Michelangelo’s Pietà, a cornerstone of Renaissance art.
Basilica of Saint Mary Major was my favourite, of the seven pilgrim churches that I visited. Inside, you will see the Salus Populi Romani, which is an icon of Mary that dates to the 500s, and a relic from the Holy Crib (that is, Jesus’s crib while in the manger). For my Robert Langdon fans, illuminated on one of the walls is a small illuminati eye surrounded by cherubs.
Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran holds the pope’s official seat. Founded in 324, it is the oldest and highest ranking of the four major papal basilicas (above St. Peter’s, Saint Mary Major and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls). Inside, you will see larger-than-life statues of the 12 apostles and the pope’s seat.
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls has a gorgeous cloister and a gold pediment. Inside, there are portrait pictures of every pope, near the ceiling. The church was founded by Constantine I, the emperor credited with bringing Catholicism to Rome’s empire. It is said that this basilica is built over the grave of Paul the Apostle. Inside the church is a wonderful dome that is decorated with Byzantine-religious art.
Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is a smaller church that holds an emotional room of relics. Located on the left of the narthex, through a door and down a hall, is the relic room. It holds relics related to Jesus’s crucifixion, including a piece of the True Cross, thorns from the crown, part of a nail, the INRI sign and the index finger of St. Thomas. In a separate room is an exact replica of the Shroud of Turin. A third room is dedicated to Antoinette Meo.
Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls is closed in the afternoon and I was unable to enter. Many places close for a few hours during Roman afternoons. However, on my way to the basilica, I was rewarded with a fascinating walk through San Lorenzo. In this area, I sat on the patio of a local restaurant and had a pizza and beer. San Lorenzo’s graffitied streets show a different side of the Eternal City; perhaps, one more in tune with the ancient Romans who were known for leaving messages in graffiti. After lunch, I neared the church and passed through a section of San Lorenzo that is filled with small businesses dedicated to marblework, flowers and other things fitting for a cemetery. Saint Lawrence outside the Walls is connected to a massive cemetery where you can visit the graves of many famous people like Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s great unifier.
Saint Sebastian beyond the Walls is technically no longer one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome, as it lost its spot in 2000. However, it is worth a visit largely because it is located on the Appian Way, one of the original roads of ancient Rome. The road is straight, narrow and built of uneven cobblestones, but rushing commuters still use it. I would say that it is not safe to bike or walk, as the Appian Way has no real shoulder. Rome’s rent-a-bikes can barely handle the bumpy cobblestones and walking without a sidewalk results in cars flying past mere inches from your life. I would try walking or biking through Appian Way Park or Caffarella Park, which run parallel to this portion of the Appian Way. If you dare to try and figure out the Roman bus system, there is a bus stop at Saint Sebastian beyond the Walls. Inside the church, you will find relics of Saint Sebastian, such as arrows that were used against him and a piece of the column he was tied to. There is also a stone imprinted with the footprints of Jesus related to “Quo vadis?” which was what Saint Peter said to Jesus along the Appian Way after Jesus rose from the dead. Saint Sebastian beyond the Walls is also known for its catacombs, which you can pay to visit.
Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love is the one church from the pilgrim churches that I did not visit. It is the latest edition to the pilgrim churches, replacing Saint Sebastian in 2000, and is located the farthest outside of Rome. It holds a miraculous painting of Mary and is near a hiking area.
Visiting these seven churches allowed me to see many parts of Rome that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. Each church had its own unique story and design. When in an overwhelming city like Rome, a list like the Seven Pilgrim Churches is very handy. I am eternally grateful to Philip Neri.