February 2002

Rome of the pilgrims

Eamon Duffy

Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy, by taking journeys on foot around the shrine churches of Rome, retraces the pilgrim routes trodden by Christians from the middle of the second century. He reflects on the changing attitude of the popes to their see and of Catholics to their popes, and concludes that ‘Catholicism is about pilgrimage, not about power’.

I was lucky enough last year to spend a term as a visiting professor at the Gregorianum, the international Jesuit University in Rome. With the job went a house on the Coelian hill, in the grounds of the Irish College. Above the garden wall yards from my door rose the squat bell-tower of the Quattro Coronatti, the extraordinary eighth-century fortress-monastery (now a convent) whose silent cloister, a place of cool green shade on the hottest days, is one of the most secret of all the secret places of Rome. The church and convent are tucked above and to one side of the pope’s ritual route to his cathedral, the Via San Giovanni, that extraordinary straight street which plunges down from the Lateran square to the Colosseum. This is one of Rome’s tourist hot-spots, seething with camera-laden visitors at all times of the year, but even in high summer the Via dei Santi Quattro did not seem in the least like a thoroughfare to one of the world’s most famous buildings in Europe’s most tourist-troubled city. Instead it resembled a remote country road, overhung with self-seeded trees and for much of the day populated only by scraggy yawning cats. And from its tranquillity, week by week, I was able to get to know, slowly and on foot, an ancient city previously encountered in breathless tourist-stops. It proved an intensely moving and stirring experience. For a church historian, those months of total immersion in a city where the Christian past is visible everywhere inevitably focused reflections on the power of Rome as a holy place.

I had been to Rome many times as a tourist myself, but also as a pilgrim, most recently during the Jubilee year, when I snatched a day between lecturing commitments to make my way (I confess slightly furtively) on foot round the major basilicas, dutifully performing the pious works required to gain the Jubilee indulgence. Like most modern Catholics, I am at best ambivalent about the theology of indulgences, even in the cleaned-up form in which they are nowadays presented; but since an evangelical Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury had been willing to help the Pope launch the Holy Year by opening the Holy Doors with him at St Paul’s outside the Walls the previous January, it struck me as churlish for a card-carrying Catholic to quibble at theological niceties.

Dante and Boniface

And to anyone with the slightest historical sense, that pilgrim journey on foot round the great shrine churches of Rome is an overwhelming experience, however coolly Anglo-Saxon one’s normal style of piety. Holy Years themselves are venerable institutions. They have been held in Rome, first at fifty- and then at twenty-five-year intervals, for seven centuries, since 1300, when the first was declared by Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface was one of the more problematic popes of the Middle Ages, accused in his lifetime of everything from megalomania to sodomy. Whether the accusations were true or false, Boniface was and is nobody’s hero —in the Divine Comedy, the poet Dante places him head-down in hell in a furnace of molten metal. Yet Dante himself made the journey to Rome during that first Holy Year. Poets, like historians, waste nothing: there is every reason to think Dante was a pious pilgrim, but he kept his eyes open and his wits about him, and when he came to write his epic of the after-life, he modelled the traffic arrangements in the more crowded districts of hell on those he saw in use to regulate the Holy Year crush on the narrow pilgrim thoroughfares connecting St Peter’s and the rest of Rome.

But Roman pilgrimage long predates the Holy Years: already by the middle of the second century pilgrims from Asia Minor were coming to pray at shrines or ‘trophies’ erected over the tombs of Peter and Paul; the greatest thinker of early Christianity, Origen, made the long journey from Alexandria to Rome ad limina apostolorum, to the threshold of the apostles. From our end of the two-thousand-year history of the Church, the shock value of that fact is dulled: Rome for us is the administrative and spiritual centre of the Church, and a natural focus of the sacred. But one needs only flick through the pages of the Book of Revelation to realise that for many early Christians Rome was a hateful and idolatrous place, Babylon the great, its soil soaked with the blood of the saints, part of a doomed demonic conspiracy to subvert the gospel and murder its heralds.

From Romulus and Remus to Peter and Paul

The irony by which the heart of the pagan empire became the chief shrine of Christendom was not lost on the early Christians, indeed in the generations immediately after the emperor Constantine’s conversion the victory of Christian Rome over pagan Rome was a major theological theme, the Empire itself understood by some as a miracle of providence designed to prepare the world for the reception of the gospel. Peter and Paul displaced Romulus and Remus as the new founding fathers, and the Roman church constituted its identity round the memories not only of the two great martyr apostles, but of the city’s other martyrs from the heroic age of persecution, the apparently defeated and murdered Christians whose cause had now triumphed. Their shrines, at a string of catacombs along Rome’s great approach roads, and in the cemetery basilicas, like San Sebastiano, San Lorenzo and Sant’ Agnese ‘outside the walls’, became holy places, to which men and women flocked for blessing and healing. The names of the martyrs were embedded in lists recited at the heart of the Mass, on either side of the words of consecration, the pedigree of the Roman community, the heroic men and women whose blood had been the seed of the Church, and who now lived, crowned and victorious, to make intercession for the communities which bore their names, treasured their relics, and honoured their memories.

The tombs and memories of the martyrs remain part of the fundamental power of ‘Roma Sancta’ to move and touch the pilgrim: underneath the steely money-making tourist bustle, it is still, for those who care to look, a city of saints. During my term in Rome I made a point of visiting as many of the shrine churches of the saints named in the canon of the Mass as I could. To walk through the afternoon heat to a church like Sant’ Agnese, a couple of miles out of the city on the Via Nomentana, one of Rome’s busiest roads, is to cross seventeen centuries in a couple of hours. Agnes was a teenage girl martyred by having her throat cut around the year 303. Her church, erected first by the emperor Constantine less than a generation after her judicial murder, is the modest surviving remnant of a basilica once almost as large as the old St Peter’s: nearby is the extraordinary circular mausoleum of Constantine’s daughter, Costanza.

The church itself is partly subterranean: you approach it by a steep flight of stairs lined with early Christian and medieval tombstones carved with invocations of the saint. Above the altar is a bizarre statue of Sant’ Agnese, adapted by fitting a Christian head on to the torso of a pagan statue. In the apse above, Pope Honorius I commissioned a barbaric mosaic of the saint (and himself) in the seventh century. In it the little Roman girl is a dominating presence, immense in size and dressed like a Byzantine empress. The mosaic is an example of the endless overlaying of history you find everywhere in Rome: when this ancient and rather alien picture was made, the legend of Agnes was already four centuries old.


Most moving of all, in the crypt beneath the altar, behind an iron grille, is the rather dusty leaden casket in which rest what is left of the bones of the little Roman girl whose name is recalled every time the Roman Canon of the Mass is recited. To kneel there in the cramped stillness of the ancient ambulatory round the shrine is to place oneself in a succession which stretches back into the ancient world, to touch a time in which the name of Christ still had an unfamiliar ring, and to which the gospel came first as treason, and then as an immense and liberating surprise.

It is also to perform an act of solidarity with countless thousands of pilgrims over seventeen centuries, who have come to this place, and to the many other places like it in Rome, because Rome’s saints had become their saints too. Many of the churches of the West, from the Balkans to the Celtic fringe of the Roman world, whose customs and calendar differed in many ways from those of Rome, nevertheless considered themselves in some sense allied to the Roman church, because they used the Roman Canon of the Mass at every Eucharist. Abbot Ceolfric

One of the most moving snapshots of an early Christian British pilgrimage to Rome is Bede’s eye-witness account of the departure from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria of the aged abbot Ceolfric, driven by an overwhelming longing to lay his bones in Rome. Ceolfric was in fact leaving what we might call a virtual Rome for Rome in reality: the monastery he left behind him was dedicated to St Peter, its church adorned with Roman icons, its monastic chant modelled directly on that used in St Peter’s in Rome, the chapel in which the abbot made his final prayers before departure consecrated to Rome’s martyred St Laurence. But the Rome he journeyed towards (he died en route) was also a ‘virtual’ Rome, a city of the imagination whose saints and ancient churches were experienced by pilgrims as an anticipation of heaven, the living embodiment of the heavenly city which was the goal of the Christian life. Anglo-Saxon England had been re-Christianised from Rome, and owed much of its ecclesiastical structure, liturgy and theology to the popes: the loyalty of men like Ceolfric was natural enough. But the fame of Rome’s saints and its appeal as a prototype of the eschatological Holy City spread even beyond the reach of the Roman liturgy. A group of seventh-century Irish monks visiting Rome encountered in the same pilgrim hostel travellers from Egypt, Palestine, Greece and southern Russia.

Bodies and bones

For the first thousand years of Christian history, then, the appeal of Rome was essentially as a vast cemetery, in which rested the bodies of famous saints, above all the two chief apostles, Peter and Paul. But for the Christians of the first millennium, possession of the bodies of the saints was far more than custody of their corpses: it meant participation in their charisms and their heavenly power. Because Rome possessed the bones of Peter and Paul, the Roman church was informed by the wisdom and authority of Peter and Paul. Though it was not his cathedral, St Peter’s basilica became the pope’s principal church precisely because it was the cemetery where the apostle lay. In the papacy’s own book of annals, the Liber Pontificalis, the pope is often referred to simply as ‘the Apostolic one’, his role defined by his relationship to Peter. And so, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, the ceremony took place not in the cathedral at the Lateran, but in St Peter’s, at the tomb of the apostle: the new Roman emperor would be the protector of the tomb of the saint whose death had conquered and redefined the glamour of the old Roman Empire.

So Rome of the pilgrims, and the tombs of Rome’s saints, above all the tomb of Peter, remained fundamental to the religious authority of the papacy. As the authority of the pope established itself across the churches of the West, it came to be symbolised by the gift of the pallium to the archbishops of the churches of the Roman obedience. The pallium is a thin circular stole of white wool embroidered with black crosses. It could and can only be bestowed by the pope. But historically it was more than the pope’s livery: it was also a symbol of association with the martyrs of Rome; the wool it was woven from was blessed at the church of Sant’ Agnese on her feast-day, and the pallium itself was blessed by being placed overnight on the tomb of St Peter. Power and authority flowed from these holy bones. In all this the pope was secondary. Though the authority of the pope was revered in the West and respected in the East throughout most of the first millennium, nobody came to Rome primarily because the pope was there, but rather for the sake of the holy dead.

Relics and indulgences By the high Middle Ages guide-books to Rome were essentially catalogues of the city’s relics, but from the fourteenth century onwards they also began to list the indulgences attached to veneration of particular relics or churches by the popes. For the religious authority of the pope was now combining with the inherent holiness of the saints in a powerful blend which reflected the growing centrality of the papacy in western religious thought. And by the fourteenth century Rome had become central in other ways too. During the first millennium the approval of Rome was often seen as a major and even an indispensable asset for new religious ventures, such as the Anglo-Saxon mission to pagan Germany. But new ideas and new religious movements never originated in Rome, and by and large the local churches got on with their lives with little reference to the popes. By 1300 all that had changed. The papacy had become the centre of a vast system of canon law, and was now the court of final appeal for vast tracts of public life inside and outside the Church, playing a major role at every level of Christian life, from the granting of indulgences and dispensations to the appointment of clergy from the humblest rectories to the richest archbishopric. Rome was now not merely a vast shrine, but a vast law-court and a clearing-house for patronage and financial benefits. Inevitably, corruption and the rule of the backhander flourished. From a holy city, Rome came to be seen as a centre of sleaze; bitter Christian satirists all over Europe deplored the new situation. The only saints venerated in Rome nowadays, it was said, were Saints Albanus and Rufus, white and red, silver and gold.

In fact, soon after the Holy Year of 1300 all this business moved elsewhere: the popes, often absentee anyway, now left Rome altogether, and settled at Avignon in the south of France, where they were to stay for more than 70 years. Deprived of its living ‘saint’, the pope, Rome languished, its fountains and aqueducts dry, its sewage system clogged, its public buildings shabby and leaking; the Lateran cathedral itself became chronically dilapidated, its floors littered with falling tiles; pilgrimage, though it never ceased, declined. It was to rectify this situation that the great Renaissance popes began to build, daringly ripping down and replacing many of Rome’s most ancient churches, most spectacularly Constantine’s own basilica of St Peter’s. The new St Peter’s would take almost two centuries to complete, and when completed would be perceived not as a shrine for the bones of Peter so much as a throne-room for his living successor.

Pagan antiquity

For in the slow evolution of modernity in the centuries since the Renaissance, two very different forces combined to alter radically the appeal of Christian Rome. One was the revival of respect for pagan antiquity, the other was the dramatic recovery — or invention — of an extremely exalted theology of the papacy. Medieval pilgrims to Rome knew perfectly well, of course, that the city had once been the centre of the world’s greatest empire: their guide books identified, sometimes correctly, the most notable of the classical buildings visible above the rubble and vegetation of centuries, and monuments like the Colosseum then as now inspired admiration and wonder. But these were the ruins of an alien past, in which there was little living interest. The Forum, once the heart of ancient Rome, was overgrown, a place of caves and rough grazing: Romans called it the Campo Vacco, the cow-field. What mattered most about Rome were its Christian churches, their relics and their indulgences. From the Renaissance onwards, however, travellers, especially Protestant travellers, reversed these values: Italy’s ancient classical buildings replaced its Christian shrines as the focus of attention. Goethe, on his first Italian journey, deliberately hurried through Assisi by night to avoid the ‘Gothick’ barbarism of the Franciscan shrine and its glorious frescos, pausing instead to admire the classical temple (sadly converted to a church) which still stands in Assisi’s central square.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall

Gibbon would be inspired to write his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by his disgust at hearing Franciscan friars sing Christian prayers in the church of Ara Coeli on the Capitol hill, where once the temple of Jove had stood. Christianity in Rome was perceived by such men not as providential victor, but as the cuckoo in the nest, ousting a noble pagan past by a tawdry Christian present. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century restoration of the historic centre of Rome would seek to peel away the Christian overlay , and the tourists would come now as much for Forum, Capitol and Circus as for St Peter’s or St Paul’s outside the walls.

But if this new appreciation of the pagan past threatened the ancient priorities of Christian Rome, so too did a new set of emphases within Catholicism. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a dramatically altered type of papacy, more centralised and more personalised than ever before. Modern communications put the popes more immediately in touch with the local churches. The collapse of Christian monarchies all over Europe, and their replacement with secular states increasingly content to leave the control of religion to the pope, left the papacy the unchallenged centre of Catholicism. For the first time in Christian history, the popes appointed most bishops, and so exercised a quite new influence over the character and theologies of the local churches. The confiscation of the Papal States and the end of the pope’s temporal power made him instead the ‘prisoner of the Vatican’, the persecuted father of the world’s faithful. Now pilgrims to Rome came to see the pope, to receive his blessing, to touch his hand, as much as or more than to venerate the holy bones of which he had been of old essentially the guardian.

Holiness and authority

To visit Rome’s ancient shrines, not least as part of a Holy Year, however, is to be offered a corrective to the cult of the Leader which surrounds the modern papacy, sometimes uncomfortably reminiscent of the personality cults of the secular absolutisms of the twentieth century. Those holy bones remind us that sanctity and hierarchy are different things, that Christianity is about the life-and-death faithfulness of ordinary people, like little Agnes, rather than about power and authority, however sacred. The saints of Rome, whose names are part of the fabric of our most ancient and precious prayer, recited with the names of our own loved ones, living and dead, whenever the Roman Mass is celebrated, help us to grasp something of the difference between authority and tradition, and of the supremacy of tradition over authority in the hierarchy of Catholic value. Every living system needs authority — order, rule, a way of arriving at consensus and of agreeing courses of action. The papacy is Catholicism’s chief and indispensable symbol of such authority. But if authority is not to decline into mere power, it needs constant correction and restraint by the stabilities of the tradition, that pattern of Christian thought and prayer and action, which goes deeper than any structure or authority, and of which the saints, not the bishops, are the chief custodians. When all is said and done, Catholicism is about pilgrimage, not about power.

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