Day 1: Rome 2016 – Basilicas and Catacombs

Thursday July 21, 2016

This day started out with stuffed croissants. And by stuffed I mean stuffed with Nutella. Then covered with powdered sugar. Very delish. I grabbed two. (#FunFact, did you know that the creator of Nutella was a very devout Catholic and devoted the success of Nutella (and likewise Ferrer Rocher) to the Blessed Virgin Mary?)

St. Mary Major

At 7:30AM we boarded buses to go to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to begin our tours of the major basilicas around Rome. As another cool #FunFact, Pope Francis visits St. Mary Major before every trip outside of Europe to entrust his voyage to the our Blessed Mother. It was also the same place he went to immediately after being elected as pope.

We had Daily Mass in one of the major side chapels with our bishop from our diocese. I think I share the same sentiment with a good handful of other pilgrims from my parish when I say that having Mass here at St. Mary Major with our bishop (in English!) was indeed special.

After Mass, we gained our tour guides. Because of our delegation of 200+ people, doing one massive tour is not practical. We split up into groups according to our flights, and each group had their own tour guides. Mine was named Teresa, and she was quite excellent in guiding us through St. Mary Major, the other basilicas, and other sights around Rome.

We took a side trip just outside of St. Mary Major to visit the church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri. This was kind of a big deal because it hosts the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My grandmother has a particularly strong devotion to her.

St. John Lateran

From St. Mary Major, we headed slightly across town to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

This is technically the first church (building) of Christendom after the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the early centuries. It’s probably most notable for the huge statues of the 11 apostles and St. Paul. This basilica is also the seat of the diocese of Rome and Rome’s bishop also happens to be the pope.

St. Peter In Chains

After St. John Lateran, we headed over to another part of the ancient city of Rome to visit St. Peter In Chains. In Acts 12, it tells how an angel helped break Peter’s chains to set him free after being imprisoned in Rome. These chains were recovered and kept as a relic that is housed in this basilica.

Another cool feature of this basilica is the statue of Moses carved by Michaelangelo.
After St. Peter in Chains, we visited the outside of the Colosseum where Teresa gave us its history in brief. Conveniently, we took a water break at a Roman water fountain (the kind you drink out of and not the really nice marble ones). They have these scattered throughout the city. The water tastes great and was a much needed way to cool down as the weather was sunny and hot like Texas.

We took a lunch break in a restaurant nearby which was located in an old Roman cellar.

St. Paul Outside the Walls

After lunch, we jetted over to our last basilica for the day, St. Paul Outside the Walls. Yes, we went outside the still-standing ancient walls of Rome to the place where St. Paul’s body (but not head) is buried. For us Christians, he’s super important as the author of many letters of the New Testament. He was beheaded and buried.

Other things of note in this basilica is a relic of the chains of St. Paul when he was imprisoned. The basilica also has portraits of all 266 popes lining the upper walls of the interior.

The Catacombs

When we finished with St. Paul Outside The Walls, we headed over to one of the catacombs. Catacombs were burial sites outside the city. Very fascinating in how the early Christians were buried in the catacombs and how they also used these places for worship when Christianity was still illegal. Many of our early martyrs were buried in the catacombs. We went through a very informative hour tour where we got to walk through a brief section of the catacombs. Apparently there are miles and miles of catacombs underneath.

I couldn’t take pictures or video inside but that’s okay since it was kind of too dark anyway.

We returned back to our hotel, had dinner, had meetings as a big diocesan group and then as parish groups.

I finished off the night with an impromptu late night gelato run with a group that was heading out to grab some. We also invited our bishop and he agreed to tag along! So yes, I can say I’ve been out and about at 10PM at night looking for gelato with my bishop.

All in all, this was a crazy jam-packed day. I really had to try and remember that I’m not visiting all these places as a tourist but rather as a pilgrim. I really had to be intentional about these sacred places and remember to pray, especially for the intentions that I’m carrying with me (from some of you!).

Several things really stood out to me from today.

  • We had Mass at St. Mary Major! With our own bishop! That’s…major! But truly a blessing to be able to worship together in a such a place.
  • I really got to appreciate the tangible things of our Christian faith. Like the chains. The images and statues. Actual things that have great historical and religious significance. Visiting the basilicas and the catacombs made the Christian faith even more real for me.
  • Kind of tied to the above point is learning my heritage as a Christian. Rome has such a deeply embedded Christian history, and it was awesome to be able to learn some of it while visiting all these places today. It makes me appreciate all the more in being Christian today.

Day 1 done. Now time to look forward to not being a sissy. In Assisi.