Pub Crawl … I mean, Church Crawl

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Some may be familiar with the tradition where a group of people go from bar to bar sampling the house specialties before going on to the next location - a pub crawl.

Now picture that with churches, where a group of pilgrims goes from church to church sampling the architecture, history and remarkable religious art.

Today's crawl began at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of Rome's four major basilicas. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to a pope around the year 352 requesting that a church be built. Her visit was followed by a miraculous snowfall that outlined the designs for the church. Why miraculous snow, you might ask, recalling the hefty dose of the white stuff Rome just got last week. Mary's snowfall was Aug. 4, when everything in Rome, including the paving stones, melts.

Stop No. 2 was Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, or the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. St. Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, is said to have brought back relics of the true Holy Cross in addition to lots and lots of soil from the Holy Land. On this soil the church was built.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien celebrated Mass here for the pilgrims, saying that this act of St. Helena's marked the beginning of Christians' devotion to the cross on which Christ died.

Church No. 3 was the Basilica of St. John Lateran, another of Constantine's accomplishments. Nearby are the Holy Stairs, where tradition says Jesus walked to Pilate's palace to receive His death sentence. Legend also said the steps were transported from the Holy Land to Rome via angels. Pilgrims had the opportunity to climb the stairs on their knees.

This basilica houses huge statues of various saints, from Thaddeus and Simon, to Andrew and Bartholomew. He was martyred by being skinned alive. The statue shows him holding long folds of his own skin emblazoned with the face of Christ - a stark representation of his path to sainthood.

We set out for one more church, (without the whole pilgrim group) one where we had been twice already this week - Santa Maria in Trastevere. Nestled, like so many of Rome's churches, down winding alleys and narrow streets, the unremarkable façade at street level hides an abundance of treasures inside, such as the head of St. Appollonia. Dating back to the 340s, it is one of Rome's oldest churches, and that's saying something.

A driving tour of Rome in early afternoon and late evening featured such spots as the Roman marketplace, or as the tour guide called it, the first shopping mall of Rome. She also said many people living in old buildings in Rome often have columns coming through the middle of their living room. One 90-year-old woman has an arch in her closet. She was born there and intends to die there, arch or not. We saw the forum, the Victor Emmanuel Monument or "wedding cake building," the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and finally headed out the Appian Way for dinner with the cardinal and nearly 200 of his pilgrims.

Oh and there was a stop for gelato mid-afternoon. Now that would be a crawl.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012