We awoke to another crisp but beautiful morning in Rome. We head to the number 14 tram stop to take us to the Basilica of the Holy Cross or Santa Croce. In this church are relics of the cross of Jesus brought to Rome by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.
In a chapel to the rear of the basilica, relics connected to the crucifixion of Jesus are enclosed behind a glass cabinet. A nail, pieces of the crown of thorns and the titular or the name plate that was nailed to the cross, are on display to be seen and venerated by the faithful.
In silence before these artifacts, our pilgrims are confronted with the reality of the crucifixion. To see the nail that pierced the flesh of Christ, the spine chilling reality really takes hold. It is the flesh that yields to the nail. The carpenters hand becomes joined again to the wood.
For our pilgrims, this is an overwhelming place.
The basilica of the Holy Cross looks directly down the via Carlo Felice towards the Papal Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano – St John Lateran. This church and not St Peter’s is the Cathedral of the diocese of Rome. It is the mother of all churches in the world. So important is it, that it has its own feast day in the church’s calendar.
Inside the Cathedral, there are twelve imposing statues of the Apostles that line the nave. The chair or cathedra, the seat of the bishop sits proudly, almost throne like in the rear of the Cathedral.
In a side chapel we celebrate our Mass for the day. The pilgrims at this stage are used to celebrating Masses in other languages. This has been a source of great joy and comfort to our pilgrims, knowing that no matter where you are in the world, whenever you step into a Catholic church or celebrate Mass, you belong. I suppose particularly in the Lateran Basilica, that is especially true. St John Lateran is sometimes styled, “Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput: “Cathedral of Rome and of the World.” This is our church.
Next to the Lateran Basilica is a building often overlooked. It consists of twenty-eight white Marble steps, now encased by wooden steps. The stairs lead to the Sancta Sanctorum, the personal chapel of the early Popes in the Lateran palace, known as the chapel of St Lawrence.
The steps are, according to the Christian tradition, the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs were, reputedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th Century.
The tradition is that those wishing to climb the stairs, must do so on their knees. At each step, prayers are said. Over the centuries the wood which protects the stairs have become so worn that wells have been created in the wood, making it very difficult and sometimes painful to climb. Some of our pilgrims climb the steps, others choose to remain at the bottom and say prayers there.
After a little break in a local cafe, we head to the big roundabout in Rome – the Coliseum. The presence of the armed soldiers and carabineri are very noticeable here. Not surprising, considering that this is one of Rome’s top tourist destinations.
I told our group, that two thousand years ago, we wouldn’t have come anywhere near this place. Many Christians were martyred here for their refusal to renounce their belief in Christ and swear an oath to Caesar.
Today though, it is much safer to be here. We eat our lunch ‘al fresco’ as the chill of the morning has gone and the day has become very pleasant. The last time we were in Rome, the coliseum was shrouded in scaffolds as it underwent cleaning. This time, the 90% of the scaffolds have gone, allowing the sun to illuminate the shining white stone of this ancient edifice.
Our last visit for the day is the to Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls – San Paolo Fuori le Mura. After his execution and burial in Rome in the 1st century AD, Saint Paul’s followers erected a shrine over the grave. Early Christians frequently visited the site to honor the great Apostle to the Gentiles and author of more than half of the New Testament.
The current church on this site was built after a fire ravaged the old church in 1823. The fire was reportedly started by a workman who was repairing the lead of the roof. This resulted in the destruction of the basilica.
The basilica has numerous relics, the most notable of which are the bones of St Paul and a set of chains said to be the prison chains of St Paul, used in the last days before his execution. They are exposed in the church on his feast days.
Another amazing feature of the basilica are the medallions that depict all the Popes back to St Peter. These run beneath the ceiling of the church. The medallion of Pope Francis, the current pope is illuminated. Our pilgrims are so intrigued by this whakapapa (genealogy), one even commented that “this is my seventh pope!” citing that Pope Pius XII was pope when she was born.
Today has been a long day but very enjoyable. We’ve covered a lot of ground. But there’s more to come.