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Rome is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and the see city of the pope, who holds his supreme rank in the church by virtue of being bishop of Rome. By the time of Christ and the apostles, Rome had become the capital of a world-class empire centered on the Mediterranean, and that included Palestine as one of its many provinces. Thus both the life of Jesus and the early extension of Christianity took place in the context of Roman power, and a Christian community arose in Rome itself at a very early time, possibly founded by the "visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes" who were present at the event of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Certainly the founding of the Roman community antedates the coming of either Peter or Paul to the city, as can be seen from Romans 1:8–15. Paul's presence at Rome is attested in Acts 28:14–31 and elsewhere in the New Testament; Peter's presence there at the end of his ministry, and the martyrdom of both under Nero (Peter crucified upside down at his own request at Vatican Hill, and Paul beheaded on the road to Ostia) is a most ancient tradition, unanimously held by early Christian sources.

Rome's position as head of the empire ensured that its community would suffer to an outstanding degree from the persecutions unleashed by emperors from Nero to Diocletian and his immediate successors, and that it would produce many outstanding martyrs, whose memory was spread throughout the empire by visiting Christians. Its secular importance meant that many Christians would have to visit the city on commercial or political business, and this fact contributed to making its bishop a personage of empirewide importance in the loose confederation of Christian communities, a person whose intervention or arbitration in disputes or controversies that divided other communities was very soon accepted as natural. It was probably not clear to any of the parties involved at the time whether this authority and prestige came from his being bishop of the imperial city, from being in some sense the successor of Peter (or of Peter and Paul) in the leadership of that community, or from the Roman community's high reputation for orthodoxy and for fraternal concern for the well-being of the other local churches, but there is no doubt that all of these factors contributed to the situation.

Even before the legalization of Christianity there is some evidence that Christian visitors to Rome would venerate the tombs of Peter and Paul, as well as the resting places of the principal local martyrs such as Agnes or Lawrence; this was given an even greater impulse by the building of basilicas on the sites, under Constantine. To this day Rome remains one of the major places of pilgrimage in the Christian world; in a period when relics had a major attraction for Christian devotion, the bishop of Rome's position as custodian of the bodies of the Princes of the Apostles was also an important element in his spiritual prestige.

With the founding of Constantinople as the New Rome and Eastern capital, the bishops of the "Elder Rome" began to be apprehensive of the Eastern bishops' tendency to attribute Rome's primacy to its position as Mother City of the empire and began therefore to insist on the Petrine foundation of their see. This new emphasis was not completely accepted in the East but was sufficiently accepted as to provoke the Byzantine legend of the apostle Andrew (Peter's brother, who had been called before Peter and introduced him to Jesus) as founder of the church of Byzantium-Constantinople. Eventually the Eastern attitude coalesced into an acceptance of the primacy of Rome as a primacy of honor based on the city's rank in the empire, while the West insisted that the bishop of Rome had a primacy of jurisdiction based on his being the successor of Peter not only in the bishopric of Rome but also in the privileges given to him by Jesus in Matthew 16:13–19, Luke 22:31–32, and John 21:15–19. This divergence was a principal cause of the division between the Eastern and Western churches and is still a humanly insurmountable obstacle to their reunion. However, the Orthodox churches still consider that the "Throne of the Elder Rome" has the first place among the episcopal sees of the world and consider Rome a venerable city, consecrated by the blood of the apostles and martyrs.

In the Middle Ages the city of Rome remained a place of pilgrimage even when the pope was, as often occurred, absent from it for long periods of time. However, the increasing business of the local churches at the papal court, as appeals to Rome became more and more frequent and as the papacy reserved more and more cases to its direct jurisdiction, meant that gradually the object of the journey to Rome came to be not only the veneration of the Roman shrines but also seeing the pope himself, whether to transact ecclesiastical business or merely to receive his blessing. Both the veneration of the shrines and the paying of one's respects to the pope received extra impetus from Boniface VIII's proclamation of the first Jubilee Year, or Holy Year, in 1300. Such jubilees, which offered special indulgences and spiritual privileges to those who make a pilgrimage to Rome during that year, were originally supposed to occur every hundred years, but they became so popular that they soon came to be granted every fifty and then every twenty-five years. While indulgences have lost much of their importance in Catholic devotion after the Second Vatican Council, Holy Years still see a significant increase in pilgrims to the shrines of Rome.

With the coming of the Renaissance the city of Rome also became a mecca for artists and connoisseurs of art, and to the attractions of the great shrines was added the attraction of the ruins of antiquity and of the palaces and churches of the Renaissance and baroque styles, especially the new basilica of St. Peter's, whose rebuilding began under Julius II and culminated with Michelangelo's dome and Bernini's colonnade. As temporal sovereigns the popes became important collectors of antiquities and patrons of the principal Renaissance painters, sculptors, and architects, so that the Vatican Palace and museums became treasure-houses of art that no tourist, whatever his or her religious beliefs, can afford to miss. Similarly, the papal ceremonies at St. Peter's and the other major basilicas became memorable spectacles, enhanced by the Sistine Choir's performance of the music of Palestrina and other major composers who had written music on commission from the popes.

While papal temporal sovereignty over Rome ended with Italian unification in 1870, the events leading to this only increased the emotional attachment of Catholics throughout the world to the pope, who was perceived as a holy old man bullied and persecuted by a secularistic government. In fact, the loss of temporal power only enhanced the popes' stature as spiritual figures in the Catholic community. And so, in spite of the secular and artistic interests that are combined with religious devotion in a modern Catholic's attitude to Rome, it still remains primarily a holy city, and a visit to it is never mere tourism; it always shares in the character of a pilgrimage that puts one in touch with the early church and with the living representative of the princes of the apostles. For American Catholics, Rome is a symbol of religious authority even in an age of greater religious freedom and choice.

See alsoChurch; Church and State; Pilgrimage; Religious Studies; Roman Catholicism; Vatican; Vatican Ii.


Dvornik, Francis. The Idea of Apostolicity in Byzantiumand the Legend of the Apostle Andrew. 1958.

Guarducci, Margherita. The Tomb of Saint Peter. 1960.

Pinto, Pio V. The Pilgrim's Guide to Rome. 1975.

Vidal, Jaime R. "Pilgrimage in the Christian Tradition." Concilium 4 (1996).

Jaime R. Vidal