The earliest Christians have always been a great inspiration to me–in fact, learning about the early Church and the early Church Fathers is, in part, what led me to Catholicism. I’m talking about the first, second, and third century Christians who were at the very least ostracized and at the very worst, martyred in some of the most brutal of ways.
In addition to my innate love of history, these early Christians are what had always drawn me to the city of Rome. Italy had always been at or near the top of my must-see list, but since becoming Catholic, I was even more fascinated by the thousands of years of history that exist in this city, both Christian and pagan. I had a strong urge to not only see the earthly center of the Catholic Church in Vatican City but also walk where our early Christian brothers and sisters gave their lives for the faith.
I’ve been able to travel extensively since I’ve grown up as the child of two professional pilots, but until last week, Rome had proven elusive in all of my itineraries. But that all changed when my mom expertly landed our plane at Rome-Fiumicino airport last week.
It was a whirlwind three-day trip in which I prayed in some beautiful churches before some incredible saints, walked where martyrs gave their lives and where they were laid to rest, saw the major sites of Rome, and got to eat authentic Italian food and drink some pretty fine Italian wine. Here’s a rundown of what I experienced these incredible three days in Rome:
The Colosseum & the Forum
Roman ruins dot the entire city of Rome. You’ll be walking along a street and suddenly come upon ruins that weren’t indicated on any map–a testament to the fact that the foundations of a powerhouse, ancient empire lay underneath what we know today as the modern city of Rome. Two particular sites of Roman ruins are tourist favorites though–the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.
We went to the Colosseum on a cloudy morning, and dodged rain showers for much of our visit, making the visit to this site of gladiator battles a bit eerie. And with good reason–its an imposing building from the outside, but when you learn what went on inside it’s a bit unnerving.
The Romans were both brilliant and barbaric. They created impressive feats of architecture that are still standing almost 2000 years later (the Colosseum was built in 70 AD); but in the Colosseum, in particular, they had some pretty gross forms of entertainment. Gladiator battles were battles between either professional gladiators or prisoners forced to fight, and most of the time only one of them left the arena alive. They’d bring exotic animals from Africa, housing them in the cages underneath the main floor (which you can still see today) and would pit them against each other to see which animal would win. Killing was, quite literally, spectator sport.
There are debates as to how many Christians were actually martyred in the Colosseum–many scholars don’t think it was all that many, because they were killed elsewhere (which I’ll discuss shortly)–but it was still incredible to ponder what happened in that arena.
As a lover of history, when visiting historic places I always try to place myself in that time period — so as I stood there looking over what’s left of the Colosseum, I imagined it in its heydey, the stone covered in glistening white marble as it originally was, full to capacity (around 70,000 people), all wearing togas, divided in the seating levels by class and gender (women had to sit far away from the arena, towards the very top), everyone fully engulfed in the carnage taking place in the center of the arena.
Bone-chilling, yet fascinating at the same time.
Basilica di San Pietro
Since I first became Catholic–even well before that, actually–I’ve dreamt of visiting the Vatican. As a Catholic it was just somewhere I needed to go–not only is it a place of tons of Catholic history but also home to the Bishop of Rome, the pope, the vicar of Christ on Earth.
I first saw St. Peter’s Basilica as we walked through St. Peter’s Square after visiting Castel Sant’Angelo at dusk. As you can see, its beautiful all lit up at night. If you travel you know that seeing a place with your own eyes that up to that point you’ve only seen in pictures and read about in books is an almost jarring experience. It was hard to comprehend that I was actually seeing the Vatican with my own eyes, finally!
On the second day of our visit, we got to go inside the Basilica. I must admit, my first visit to this holy, renowned, and historic Church didn’t quite go as I had planned–but the fact that it didn’t was actually a spiritual lesson for me.
Of course I was awe-inspired by the sheer magnitude of the Basilica. I’ve been in many different cathedrals in the past few years–the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and others–but obviously none compare to the size of St. Peter’s. And of course, the Pieta by Michelangelo was as beautiful in person as it looked to be in pictures I’d seen.
But in general, by the time we made our way inside, I was not feeling very inspired–I was actually really jet lagged, hungry, and my feet were killing me. The Church was beautiful and spiritually inspiring but my more human side was uncomfortable. So, I really did not have a rush of emotion upon walking into St. Peter’s. Before visiting, I thought that I would be moved to tears upon visiting a place like this. But I wasn’t–I of course thought it was beautiful but I had little to no emotion to show for it.
At first this really bothered me–naturally I’m an empathetic, sensitive, emotional person–but I was quickly reminded by my mom, husband, and by Jesus himself in prayer, that the faith that built this Church was not built upon emotion. And in general, faith is not about emotion and is not an indicator of devotion or love for God. Just because I wasn’t moved to emotional tears by the sight of the high altar, the Holy Spirit window, or the Pieta didn’t indicate a lack of reverence for what these things represent or for my faith itself. My scrupulous self learned, in that brief period of time I walked around St. Peters, to take a minute and accept the fact that I am human, and that my faith is not driven by the way that I feel (thankfully!).
That said, though, I still had the opportunity to pray before the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II, before relics of St. John Chrysostom, before the tomb of Pope St. John XXIII, and the blessed sacrament which were amazing moments. If you sent me prayer intentions before or during my trip, know that I prayed for each one of your intentions at St. Peter’s Basilica 🙂
The Scavi Tour
One of our last stops during this trip was truly one of the most amazing tours I’ve ever experienced–the “Scavi” tour, or an hour-long tour of the excavations underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, including where St. Peter is buried.
We went through security underneath the Bernini Colonnade on the left side of the Vatican, and the Swiss Guard directed us to the Scavi Office, where our tour would begin. Above I said that I would address further where most of the Christians in the first few centuries after Christ were martyred elsewhere–the area around the Scavi office used to be a Roman circus, or chariot racing track. This is where many of the Christians were martyred, and the obelisk that stands in St. Peter’s Square was originally at the center of this circus.
Our guide gave us a background of Roman history, beginning with the fact that the spot on which St. Peter’s is built now went through several iterations of being a pagan cemetery with elaborate mausoleums, and then later a Christian cemetery after St. Peter had been martyred in the area. The first “St. Peter’s” was a wooden church built by Constantine, the first Roman emperor to cease the persecution of Christians, in the 4th century. We proceeded to go down a series of stairwells and tunnels until we were literally underneath the Basilica, in a dimly lit, stuffy, and cramped cavity before several ancient marble caskets.
This history major was in her element as we moved through various rooms that, at one point, lined an open-air street of mausoleums of wealthy Roman pagans. I am recounting the details I remember, because our guide gave us so much information and unfortunately we were not able to take pictures, but let me emphasize that if you are ever in Rome, you NEED to go on this tour! It is beyond fascinating and so difficult to comprehend just how old the things you’re looking at are. Our guide told us how many of the burial chambers had been completely covered in dirt, and were not excavated until the mid 20th century. There were mosaics on the floors that were so incredibly well-preserved–and to think that they were literally thousands of years old!
Most moving was the part of the tour that covered St. Peter and how his remains were discovered. We first went in a small room with a window that went further into a smaller cavity. Our guide explained that initially, based on tradition and other documentation, archaeologists were fairly certain that St. Peter was directly underneath the altar. However, they found an empty grave that was open from the bottom–he wasn’t there. Some time later, they came across a wall of graffiti–ancient Latin graffiti translated to be prayers to Jesus, Mary, and St. Peter. Behind this wall, they found human remains wrapped in a fine cloth, with an inscription indicating something to the effect of saying “Peter is here.” The human remains were tested in the later 20th century (Pope Paul VI supported these excavation efforts) and determined the bones to be a man in his 60s or 70s; further, the remains didn’t contain any foot bones–and St. Peter is known, by tradition, to have been crucified upside down, meaning there wouldn’t have been much left of his feet by the time the Romans took him down from his cross. Our guide suggested St. Peter’s remains were moved by Constantine himself, to a place more safe and secure than the original location underneath the altar.
This was such an amazing sight to behold–the wall of graffiti, with a little hole in it where you could just barely see something that looked like a container of relics–St. Peter, our first pope, the man who denied Christ three times but by the grace of God became the leader of the early Church and a martyr who fortified the faith in countless others. The magnitude of what I was seeing hit me as I trailed behind our tour group and said a few prayers to St. Peter before I left.
After leaving the necropolis, we walked through a hall containing the tombs of about a dozen popes, including Blessed Pope Paul VI. The crazy thing is that our guide said there are likely even more mausoleums and tombs like the ones we saw on the tour, but it was determined that further excavation would put the structural integrity of the Basilica in jeopardy, so they can’t be explored further.
Suffice it to say that my first trip to Rome exceeded my expectations, both in beauty and in historical wonder, and Jesus even used it to remind me of my humanity and that faith is not to be based on emotions. I’m so grateful I was able to spend three incredible days in Rome, and look forward to returning–hopefully sooner, rather than later 🙂