With the canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII upon us, I have been learning a lot about Rome. Recently I wrote an article for FoxNews.com that looked at some of the most interesting of the 900 churches in Rome. I interviewed several Catholic folks who travel to Rome frequently, including Teresa Tomeo, Steve Ray and Ken Nowell, author of the new Rome guidebook “Rome and the Vatican Guide 4 Pilgrims,” about their favorite Rome churches.
As a Catholic Newbie, I learn something (OK, maybe a BUNCH of things) everyday about our faith, but one thing that’s truly surprised me is the abundance of amazing relics in both Rome and the Holy Land. My jaw almost dropped when I read that at St. Sylvester at the Head church, you can see what is believed to be the preserved head of John the Baptist as verified by Pope Benedict XVI. That is truly amazing to me! I had no idea and even in talking with fellow longtime Catholics, many did not realize that either.
Says Steve Ray, aka Jerusalem Jones, who leads pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land every year, about relics, “We Catholics are a morbid bunch. I like it that we have these unique things and we honor those who have gone before us. It’s our hall of fame; we aspire to be like them.” Ray says he’s experienced several miracles he attributes to veneration of relics.
Here are some of the more interesting Roman curiosities I came across in writing my article that I thought would be of interest to both new and longstanding Catholics alike:
- At St. Prassede, see what is believed to be a portion of the scourging column of Jesus Christ.
- St. Stephen’s in the Round is a church dedicated to Christian martyrs. You’ll find gruesome paintings throughout of the atrocities Christians have faced over time. While it’s not the best place for kids, Ray says strangely it’s a popular spot for weddings.
- See the remains of St. Paul and the chains that imprisoned him in his final days at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, one of the four major papal basilicas.
- St. Cecilia in Trastevere is built over the preserved 200 A.D. home of the young martyr St. Cecilia.
- See three layers of Roman history at St. Clemente where the modern church is built over a 4th century church, which is built over a 1st century pagan temple. The current ground level is 60 feet above the 1st century level. “San Clemente demonstrates that Rome was built, layer upon layer, in search of God,” says Nowell.
- A trompe l’oeil ceiling painting at St. Ignatius of Loyola tricks the eye into believing there is a dome when there isn’t one. According to Sean Finelli, co-founder of The Roman Guy tour company, it’s commonly described as the second most beautiful ceiling painting in Rome after the Sistine Chapel.
- At St. Paul’s at the Three Fountains, there is the column upon which St. Paul was beheaded. It is said that his head bounced three times upon falling and at each spot a spring began to flow. You can see these fountains within the church.
- Scala Santa or Holy Staircase is the home of the 28 marble stairs that led to Pontius Pilate’s praetorium, which Jesus would have climbed repeatedly during his trial and passion. Also on display at this church is the porphyry slab upon which Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic as foretold in the Psalms.
How amazing that such relics exist and that it is possible to see them. When I asked Nowell more about the importance of relics to Catholics, he said, “There has been a long standing veneration of relics, dating back to the apostolic times. It’s not that we’re saying they have magical powers. These have power only because it’s in accordance with God’s will.”
Which relic would you most like to see? Do you believe in their healing powers?