The Four Papal Basilicas - Rome And Its Greatest Churches

It is believed that the closest apostles of Christ were buried in Rome. During those times when Ancient Rome was pagan and in its full power first Christians were outcasts for at least three centuries and they were prosecuted ruthlessly. Although Christians were tortured, executed and killed, many of them didn’t reject their belief in God and died in the name of their faith. After their death they were buried in the catacombs, which were located outside the city, turned into greatly venerated saints and in later years their relics were treated as shrines and used to consecrate buildings in order to use them as churches (a famous example is the Pantheon). Only with Emperor Constantine I, Christianity started to gain power as a religion and spread freely. Since then during centuries many Catholic pilgrimage routes have been formed on the way to Rome, where people could reach and enter the four greatest Catholic churches. 

Birth Of the First Church

What were the first churches of those times when Christianity was banned and prosecuted? Actually, before any churches appeared there were simple private houses, where people gathered to pray. The first Christians usually gathered on the second floor, read Gospels and celebrated Eucharist. Just think about it, in one of such houses Jesus and the twelve apostles had their Last Supper. A little bit later such private houses began having their own parishioners and needed more room for people to gather. At the center of every house, where first Christians met, was a cardinal. The cardinal played a core role for his parish and every house like that started having its own name - tituli.

Interestingly, a church back then had a different meaning from what it is today. The word “church” meant people who gathered in the name of God, not the house itself. Only much later Christian houses began to be called churches and acquired the meaning they have now. 

With time churches as we know them today were built on the spots of the first private houses. It is very widespread for old churches of Rome to have really ancient roots that go deep into history. You may enter a church that dates 16th century, but in the underground there will be the walls and stones of the earlier ones. Such churches are numerous in Rome, all of them have their own sinuous stories to tell making you want to go back to Rome and find out more about each of them. 

With centuries church hierarchy has been formed, distinguishing four of them as the main churches that acquired the status of major basilica. 

The Four-Churches Pilgrimage Route

Many of us know that a basilica is an architectural word and it defines a certain type of a structure. In Catholicism, however, “basilica” has a different meaning. For a full understanding, the word “basilica” in Catholic tradition is a special title given to a church by the Pope. Additionally, among hundreds of Catholic basilicas only the following four have even a more exceptional status and are called Papal Basilicas, or Major Basilicas. They are: Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (324 AD) (the only church, called “archbasilica”), St. Peter's Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. 

Other churches with a “basilica” status are called Minor Basilicas. The four Papal Basilicas together with three special Minor Basilicas form a seven-churches-pilgrimage route, which will be discussed in the next article.

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

The short official name of this church in Latin is Archbasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris. However, the full name of this Basilica is much longer, which in translation means “The Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran”. The latter name reflects the long history of this church. After having been renamed thrice, the last name was decided to include all the names the church ever had and made it one. 

As for the word “Lateran”, it signifies the name of the hill, on which the church of St. John was built initially and stands till today. The history of this hill has its roots in Antiquity. Back to 60 AC these lands belonged to a renowned family with a renowned family name Lateran. The rich past of this place includes the discovery of the monument of Mark Aurelius, which stands today on the Capitoline Hill and has become one of the most recognizable signs of Rome.

Emperor Constantine the Great (i.e. Emperor Constantine I), the first Christian Roman ruler, gave the Lateran Palace to Papacy. Shortly after that he ordered to build a church here. The church has undergone numerous fires and misfortunes and was rebuilt many times. Archbasilica of St. John Lateran as we know it today was finished only in 1735. 

Although it is not located in the Vatican City State, the church and the land around it belong to the Vatican and the Holy See. The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is considered the oldest and the greatest one among the major four basilicas in Rome and the whole Western World. 

St. Peter's Basilica In Vatican

Today St. Peter’s Basilica is the most famous one in Rome. Not only is this the largest church on Earth, it is also the most remarkable religious place thanks to the people who participated in creating it. Also, what’s interesting St. Peter’s Church is the only one out of the four Major Basilicas that is actually located on the territory of the Vatican City State. 

According to the tradition this world-known church stands on the place of death and later the tomb of Saint Peter, the main disciple among the twelve and the closest apostles to Christ. In 318 - 322 during the reign of the first Christian Emperor Constantine erected the first church in the name of this saint. Later in time after the first church was ruined there were others built on the same spot in the later periods. 

It is important to remember that Saint Peter is considered to be the first pope according to the Catholic tradition and therefore the basilica in his name has a special meaning for Catholics all around the world.

As for the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica we know today, it dates back to 1506 and stands out among other churches with its outstanding beauty, grandeur and spaciousness. Not without reason it has acquired the fame it has today. Such famous artists, sculptures and architects as Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini, Maderno, Sangallo, Della Porta and others took part in its creation. Today St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City State is one of the most prominent and recognizable churches in the world.

Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

If you happen to visit or live in the Testaccio area, then it would be extremely easy for you to get to the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mure, i.e. Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. In the name of this Basilica the former 3d-century gate in the Aurelian Wall, called previously Via Ostiense, was renamed into the Saint Peter’s Gate (the Porta San Paolo) for the very reason that it takes you directly to one of the four Major Basilicas in Rome.

This amazing basilica is not only known to be a second big basilica of Rome after St. Peter’s. Many visitors admit that it has a very charismatic atmosphere that attracts you to further visiting it. Like all the other three major basilicas, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls has a long history. It starts in the first century with the execution of Saint Paul and a memorial that was erected in his name after death. Only three centuries later in 324 Constantine the Great allowed building and consecrating the first basilica right on this place. With centuries a long list of restoration and repair works happened. This basilica was ruined and then rebuilt again. Today it impresses us with its monumental appearance, grandiose colonnade, splendid garden, its papal gallery, unique stained glass and mosaics. In addition, among the four basilicas this one is the most quiet, which allows you to feel the tranquility of this place and pray in an awe-inspiring atmosphere. 

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica of St. Mary Major is a very special place. It is the largest Marian basilica in Rome and known in Italian as“Nostra Signora della Neve”, which means Our Lady Of Snows. As a Papal major basilica, it is often used by the Pope for services. This church keeps unique religious shrines and relics. 

According to the legend Christian Roman patricians John and his wife who could not have children, decided to give away all their money to the church and asked God to show them what to do. During the same night Mother Mary came into their dreams and in the morning snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, giving them a sign where to build a church. 

The basilica was built by Sixtus III (432 - 440), who had the same dream that night. He wanted to build a church as a new and prevailing place of worship for the whole world. He kept in mind the Council of Ephesus, which had been cited in the Book of Revelation and was the first to have been dedicated to Mother Mary and her unique status in Catholicism. 

Although the Basilica underwent various changes and restorations through all these years, it became truly iconic. In between XV -  XVII centuries Madonna Della Neve tradition became so widespread in Catholicism that it embraced dozens of towns and villages. Today Our Lady of Snow is celebrated by a shower of white rose petals falling from the dome on August, 5. The beautiful ceremony is annually led by the Pope and attended by thousands of people. 

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is also the burial place of the greatest architects of all time Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

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