Rome/Vatican City

Rome/Vatican City (Italy)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In the spring of 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II (1920–2005), millions of television viewers watched a broadcast of Rome and the tiny Vatican City that serves as the center of the billion-member Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious organization in the world. Several million pilgrims joined the television audience as the church went through the process of burying their leader and went through the arduous process of electing his successor. The major public ceremonies were conducted in the single most important religious site in the city: Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Even before it became the center of the Catholic Church, however, Rome was the center of a great empire, and hence home to numerous pagan temples. Rome’s origins date back to at least to the fifth century BCE and the lengthy rule of Servius Tullius (r. 578 to 534 BCE), who included religion among the many aspects of the Roman civilization he helped establish. He is particularly associated with the development of the cult to the goddess Diana on Aventine Hill, where the temple dedicated to her still stands. Today, scattered about the city in various states of ruin, are temples to many pagan deities.

By far the most impressive of the surviving pagan temples is the Pantheon, which is dedicated to the twelve Olympian gods, the main deities of the official Roman religion. The impressive building is covered with a dome that has a span of 142 feet. From its erection around the year 125 CE until the fifteenth century, it was the largest dome in the world. Two previous buildings had existed on the site, too, but both had been destroyed by fire.

The major transition of Rome from a primarily pagan to a primarily Christian city can be traced to the fourth century CE and the reign of the Emperor Constantine (c. 272–337). He built the Church of Saint John Lateran, the first large basilica in the Christian world. This church emerged as the center of Roman Catholic and papal authority for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, it would be the site of some of the most important councils held by the Catholic Church. Over the course of its history, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, the last time being in the seventeenth century.

Surviving through the centuries are a number of relics. Among the more significant items to be seen today at the Church of Saint John Lateran is a staircase believed to have been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena (c. 248-c. 329). Tradition suggests that the staircase and its 29 steps originated in Jerusalem and was walked upon by Jesus during his Passion. In former years, the stairs functioned to connect the church with what was then the papal residence. The church also contains a private chapel for the popes, the Sancta Sanctorium, which houses some of the key relics connecting Rome with the site of Christian origins in the Holy Land. Among these relics are what are believed to be the True Cross, a lock of hair from the Virgin Mary, a fragment of bread from the Last Supper, and some bones from the two Johns (John the Baptist and John the Evangelist) for whom the church is named. Finally, the church also houses a number of Jewish artifacts brought to Rome by Vespasian, who sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The Church of Saint Mary Major, the first major church in Christendom dedicated to the Virgin Mary, dates back to a vision of the Virgin in the middle of one of Rome’s very hot summers. The following story recounts events from the mid-fourth century CE, but the story itelf seems to have first appeared in the eleventh century.

A wealthy Roman resident was told in the vision to build a church where he found snow falling the next morning. His vision coincided with the pope’s receiving of a similar message in a dream. The next morning snow covered the Esquiline Hill. The original building was replaced with a large basilica in the fifth century, following the proclamation of Mary as the Mother of God by the church council at Ephesus. An image of Mary in the church is thus named Our Lady of the Snows.

The Church of Saint Mary Major was connected to the Church of Saint John Lateran during the medieval era by the relic of a full-length image of Jesus ascribed to the Apostle Luke. It was periodically carried in procession from the Lateran to Saint Mary’s. The arrival of the image at Saint Mary’s was seen as symbolically reuniting Jesus with his mother.

These two early churches in Rome were preceded by sites inhabited by the Christian community through the centuries. Primary among these are the catacombs into which it is believed the persecuted often took refuge. The catacombs are the places for the burial of many Christians, including many saints. Over 500,000 bodies are to be found in the more than 60 miles of the underground catacomb networks.

Christian life in Rome is tied to the arrival of two of the most famous of Jesus’ apostles: Peter and Paul. Paul came to Rome around 65 CE and was eventually executed there. He was buried outside the city walls in a cemetery belonging to a Roman lady named Lucina. On this site in the fourth century, Constantine would oversee the erection of a large basilica that came to be known as the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Peter, regarded by Roman Catholics as the first bishop of Rome, was also executed in the city. He was buried on the site of the present Vatican City, and here Constantine also built another large basilica. The basilica was demolished in the early sixteenth century, however, and replaced by the present Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The Constantinian basilica had fallen into disrepair during the years when the popes resided in France. Thus it was that Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447–1455) suggested the building be replaced by a new church. The building process would cover the next century and a half and be caught up in the larger ongoing demands for reform within the church. Efforts to raise money to support the construction of Saint Peter’s became an important element leading to the emergence of Protestantism and the splitting off of much of the northern and western European countries from the Catholic fold. The present building was finally dedicated in 1626.

Saint Peter’s dome is slightly larger than that of the Pantheon. The overall surface area of the interior is impressive at more than 160,000 square feet (compared to the 90,000 square feet covered by the cathedral in Milan, Italy, and the 84,000 square feet of Saint Paul’s in London). The church houses a number of relics, many tracing their history to Saint Helena’s search of the Holy Land in the fourth century, and has become the place where many of the church’s most impressive services occur including the canonization of saints and the coronation of successive popes.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Rome became a focus of pilgrimage. To the churches of Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and Saint Peter’s, three additional churches emerged as primary objects for visitation: Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, the Holy Cross, and Saint Sebastian. To these have been added other churches dedicated to various saints.

Radiating outward from Vatican City, one can now find the offices of the Curia, the international administrative offices of the Catholic Church, numerous colleges and seminaries, the international headquarters of many ordered communities, and the offices of an uncounted number of official and unofficial Catholic organizations. Twelve buildings within Rome but not in the city, including, for example, the churches of Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls, have extra territorial rights that exempt them from either expropriation or taxes by the Italian government.

Vatican City is considered to be a separate country, though some of the affairs generally conducted by a sovereign state are handled by Italy’s government. It issues its own currency and stamps, has its own flag, and its own police force. The complex political relationship between the governments of Vatican City and Italy, and the Roman Catholic Church, has led to an equally complex set of relationships between the Vatican and other governments and ecclesiastical entities worldwide.


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Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity through the Churches of Rome. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999.
Hebblethwaite, P. In the Vatican. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Introvigne, Massimo, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, Nelly Ippolito Macrina, and Verònica Roldán. Enciclopedia delle Religioni in Italia. Leumann (Torino): Elledici, 2001.
Tylenda, Joseph N. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Rome’s Principal Churches. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.