The story of Christianity’s rise to prominence in Italy and throughout Europe is a remarkable one. Because of its important religious history, Italy is home to some of the world's most prominent religious sites, many dating back to the earliest days of Christianity.
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THE VATICAN & ST. PETER'S BASILICA
St. Peter's Basilica, regarded as one of the holiest of Christian sites, is a late Renaissance church located within the Vatican. It has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, holding 60,000 people.
There has been a church on this site since the 5th century. Construction of the present basilica, over the old basilica (built by Constantine in 326-333 AD), began on April 18, 1506, and was completed on November 18, 1626.
In Catholic tradition, the basilica is the burial site of its namesake, Saint Peter, who is considered the first Bishop of Rome. Tradition and historical evidence hold that Saint Peter's tomb is directly below the altar of the basilica. For this reason, many Popes have been buried at St Peter's since the Early Christian period.
St. Peter's is famous as a place of pilgrimage. It is associated with the papacy and its impressive works of art, including Michelangelo's Pieta. As a work of architecture, it is regarded as the greatest building of its age.
Nearby, at the Vatican Museums, visitors can see more great works of art and historical documents; and they can visit the Sistine Chapel, frescoed throughout by the great Renaissance artists Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Sandro Botticelli.
For centuries, pilgrims have come to Rome to visit other important churches as well as St. Peter's. The Basilica of St. John Lateran, said to contain a wooden altar used by the earliest popes, including St. Peter, is the parish church of the Pope; the Basilica of St. Mary Major houses relics of the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem; the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls holds the tomb of St. Paul under its main altar; the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls is dedicated to St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, who died serving the poor; the Church of St. Sebastian honors the soldier saint who reached out to prisoners; and the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem was consecrated around 325 AD to house the Passion Relics brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Helena of Constantinople, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. In addition, there are other religious sites not to be missed in Rome. Following are a few of the many notable ones worth visiting:
The Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs, near the Basilica of St. John Lateran, is said to contain, originally from Jerusalem, the 33 steps that Jesus stood upon during the beginning of His crucifixion. The stairs were brought to Rome by St. Helena, mother of Constantine, in 335 AD. These stairs were in the praetorium of Pontius Pilate when he was governor of Judea. On the day he was condemned to death, Jesus would have ascended these stairs.
The Catacombs of Rome are ancient underground burial places under or near Rome. There are at least forty, some discovered only in recent years. Though most famous for Christian burials, they also include pagan and Jewish burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together. They began in the 2nd century, as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land and to satisfy the need for persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly. Names of the catacombs, such as St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian, refer to martyrs who might be buried there.
Domine Quo Vadis Church is near the Church of St. Sebastian. It is built on the site where Jesus appeared to St. Peter, who was running away from the Emperor Nero, persecutor of Christians in Rome. Peter asked, "Domine, quo vadis?" (Lord, whither goest thou?) Jesus answered, "I am going to Rome to be crucified again" and then he disappeared. Peter then returned to Rome and his martyrdom.
The Church of Santa Pudenziana is said to be the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome. It was built over a 2nd century house, probably during the pontificate of Pope Pius I (140–155).
The Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva, considered the only Gothic church in Rome, houses the tombs of St. Catherine of Siena and the Dominican painter Fra Angelico (Blessed John of Fiesole). The basilica gets its name because it was built directly over the foundations of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, but wrongly attributed to Minerva.
Saint Peter in Chains, near the Colosseum, was founded in the fifth century to hold the chains that are believed to be those that held St. Peter captive in Mamertine Prison. The church is also home of the famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo.
The Basilica of Saint Clement is a three-tiered complex of buildings. The present basilica was built just before the year 1100. Beneath that basilica is a 4th century basilica that was converted out of the home of a Roman nobleman, part of which briefly served as an early church. The home of the Roman nobleman was built on the foundations of a building that was destroyed in a fire in the year 64 AD.
The Mamertine Prison was a prison located in the Roman Forum in ancient Rome. Typically, only higher profile prisoners were kept in the prison and the entrance to the prison records the tradition that it is the place where Saint Peter and Saint Paul were imprisoned. It is not known when the prison went out of service permanently, but the site has been used for Christian worship since medieval times. It is currently occupied by two superimposed churches: S. Giuseppe dei Falegnami (upper) and S. Pietro in Carcere (lower). The Cross on the altar in the lower chapel is upside down because according to tradition, Saint Peter was crucified that way.
The small town of Manoppello has recently come to fame as home to a cloth picturing the Face of Christ, held in the Basilica of the Holy Face. The Image of the Holy Face is similar to the more famous Shroud of Turin, in that the image that appears is not painted on the surface, but is part of the cloth itself. When viewed from some angles it is fairly clear and yet when viewed from some other angles it is almost invisible.
The image is different from the Shroud in one aspect, however, in that it is a positive image rather than a negative image as shown on the Shroud. When the image on the Veil of Manoppello is laid over the image of the face on the Shroud of Turin, the two images match perfectly. The veil is on public display year-round, unlike the Shroud of Turin which is only on display every 10 years or so.
The Holy House of Loreto (Basilica della Santa Casa) in eastern Italy is a popular pilgrimage site. It is here where the original Nazareth home of the Virgin Mary, the place where the Annunciation took place, is said to be. According to legend, angels transported the home to this spot in 1294; however, according to another tradition, Crusaders may have brought the home to Loreto. Today's research confirms that the measurements and materials fit the original foundation of Mary's home in Nazareth.
Loreto is close to Osimo, where one can also visit the Church of San Giuseppe da Copertino. San Giuseppe da Copertino is the patron saint of students and pilots, and his church is visited by those who need help in times of life change and decisions.
ASSISI & THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST. FRANCIS
The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscan Order. The basilica is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy. Assisi was the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208. There are many important worship places connected with him in Assisi. The Basilica was begun in 1228 and built into the side of a hill. It comprises two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, which contains a crypt where the remains of the Saint Francis are interred. The Upper and Lower Churches are decorated with frescoes by numerous late medieval painters, including works by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti. With its accompanying friary, the basilica is a distinctive landmark to those approaching Assisi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis and the founder of the Order of Poor Clares, was also born in Assisi. The Basilica of St. Clare contains the tomb of the saint and 13th-century frescoes and paintings.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels is a church situated in the plain at the foot of the hill of Assisi, Italy. The basilica was constructed between 1569 and 1679, enclosing the 9th century little church, the Porziuncola, a sacred place for the Franciscans. It was here that the young Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor, thus beginning the Franciscan movement. The Chapel of the Transito, the cell in which St. Francis died on October 3, 1226, is still preserved. It is situated under the bay of the choir, against the right columns of the dome. It is decorated on the outside by the fresco of The Transito by Domenico Bruschi (1886); and on the inside, above the small altar, is the rope of St. Francis. The Rose Garden is the last remains of the ancient wood in which St Francis and his friars lived. Here he talked to the turtle doves, inviting them to praise the Lord. Doves have been nesting since in the hands of the statue of St. Francis in this rose garden.
In nearby Perugia, where Francis was imprisoned as a young soldier during a war between Perugia and Assisi, one can visit the Piazza Matteotti in the area of the prison in which Francis was held; and in an excursion to the Basilica of the Sanctuary of La Verna, one can see where St. Francis received the stigmata. The friars dwelling there go in solemn procession twice daily (at 2 p.m. and at midnight) to the Chapel of the Stigmata.
Greccio is a hilltown about 10 miles from Rieti in the mountainous Rieti Valley. It was there, in December 1223, that St. Francis first devised a living scene to depict the Nativity of our Lord. The idea was to discourage would-be pilgrims from visiting Bethlehem as the Holy Land was then under the control of the Turks. The tradition continues in Greccio to this day and a memorial of St. Francis, the Sanctuario di S. Francesco, may be visited.
Three additional sanctuaries may be visited in the Rieti Valley: Fonte Colombo Sanctuary, the place where, according to tradition, St. Francis meditated in a cave for forty days before receiving confirmation of the Franciscan Order by Jesus; La Foresta Sanctuary, where Francis stayed on his way to Rieti seeking a cure for his eyes and where it is said he composed the “Song of Bother Sun”; and Poggio Bustone, where a picture can be seen commemorating the place where an angel appeared to Francis and said, "Francis, here your sins are forgiven as you have asked."
St. Catherine of Siena, one of twenty-five children, was born in Siena. She played a prominent role in the Catholic Church and is one of only three women to earn the title of Doctor of the Church due to her spiritual insight. Tourists can visit the Sanctuary of Santa Caterina, incorporating the old house of St. Catherine of Siena. It contains the miraculous Crucifix (late 12th century) from which the saint received her stigmata, and a 15th century statue of St. Catherine.
There are other important churches to visit in Siena as well. Siena's cathedral, the Duomo, is an example of Italian Gothic architecture and houses many art masterpieces; The Basilica of San Domenico, dating from the 13th century, displays beautiful art as well as the head and finger of St. Catherine of Siena; and The Basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi has some famous frescoes and works of art.
The Basilica of St. Francis is home to a Eucharistic miracle. There pilgrims can see the miraculous consecrated Hosts that have remained intact since 1730.
St. Rita was born at Roccaporena near Spoleto in Umbria. She married at age 12 and had 2 sons. After her husband was murdered and her sons died, Rita entered the Monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene at Cascia. There she experienced the wounds of Christ, stigmatism. Many miracles have been attributed to her since her death in the 14th century and she is considered “saint of the impossible." She was canonized on May 24, 1900 by Pope Leo XIII. Today, visiting pilgrims can see her basilica, the monastery, her tomb and artifacts from her life, including the Crucifix from which she received the stigmata. There is also a display representing a Eucharistic miracle from before her time.
MONTE CASSINO & THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST. BENEDICT
The Basilica of St. Benedict of Norcia (currently being rebuilt after destruction by an earthquake) was built, according to tradition, on the ruins of the native house of St. Benedict. St. Benedict was born about 480 AD in Norcia, about 70 miles from Rome, to a distinguished family. He was sent to Rome to pursue his studies, but the wickedness of the city and of his fellow students led Benedict to flee to the country. Eventually, he went to Subiaco, about 40 miles to the east of Rome. There he founded twelve communities for monks before moving to Monte Cassino.
The Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco is built over the cave in which St. Benedict lived as a hermit before he organized his first monastic community. It is located amid beautiful natural scenery and the monastery is still active. Visitors are welcome to pray at Benedict's cave and explore the church covered in beautiful medieval frescoes, including a portrait of St. Francis of Assisi painted during his lifetime. About a mile and a half below the shrine is the Abbey of St. Scholastica, built by St. Benedict himself (about 520).
Monte Cassino is a monastery complex near Rome. It is there that St. Benedict of Norcia founded the Benedictine Order around 529 and it is there that he is buried. At Montecassino, he wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism. The number of monks rose to over two hundred in the 11th century; and the library, the manuscripts produced in the scriptorium and the school of manuscript illuminators became famous throughout the West. The abbey that is now seen there was rebuilt after its destruction during World War II. To the west of the monastery, one will notice the War Cemetery where more than 1000 Polish soldiers are buried. They lost their lives in the battle preceding liberation of the Montecassino Abbey, which took place on May 18, 1944. A white marble obelisk was raised on the mountain in their remembrance stating the following words: "We Polish soldiers have given our body to Italy, our heart to Poland and our soul to God for our own and other people's freedom."
SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO
San Giovanni Rotondo is where Saint Pio of Pietrelcina lived. He was born Francesco Forgione in 1887, and given the name Pio when he joined the Capuchins. He was popularly known as Padre Pio after his ordination to the priesthood. He became famous as a man of great holiness, a worker of miracles, a great confessor; and for experiencing the stigmata. On June 16, 2002, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Today, pilgrims can visit the friary he lived in, see his cell and pray at his tomb. Also, in order to accommodate a growing number of pilgrims, the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church has been built near a large hospital and research center founded by Padre Pio.
SAINT MICHAEL’S CAVE
St. Michael’s Cave is one of the holiest places in Italy and throughout Christendom, located on the eastern coast of Italy close to Padre Pio’s shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo. It has been visited by countless popes and saints: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernard of Clarvaux, Saint Bridget of Sweden, at least 7 popes including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Francis of Assisi considered it to be so holy that he would not even enter it. St. Michael himself is said to have consecrated the cave to God in the 6th century
Fernando Martins de Bulhões, who later, upon admission into the Franciscan Order, would take the name António (Anthony), was born in Lisbon into a very rich family of nobility. Against the wishes of his family, he entered the Augustinian Abbey of St. Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon. Eventually, he became attracted to the Franciscan lifestyle and got permission from his Augustinian superiors to join the Franciscan order in Italy.
At first, he lived as a hermit and worked in the kitchen; but before long, he was discovered to be a great preacher and was commissioned to preach the Gospel throughout the area of Lombardy in northern Italy. Miracles were attributed to him both during and after his lifetime. He died at age 36 and he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX less than one year after his death on May 30, 1232. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church on January 16, 1946, and today pilgrims can visit St. Anthony's Basilica, built in his honor in Padua. One can view many things related to his life, including his incorrupt tongue, which is displayed in a reliquary.
The Cathedral of Orvieto is a large 14th century Roman Catholic cathedral in the town of Orvieto in central Italy. The building was constructed under the orders of Pope Urban IV to provide a suitable home for the Corporal of Bolsena. In 1263, while Holy Mass was being celebrated in Bolsena, Italy, at the Church of St. Christina, blood started to seep from the consecrated Host and drip onto the hands of the priest and onto the altar and the corporal. The priest asked to be taken to the neighboring city of Orvieto, the city where Pope Urban IV was then residing. The Pope had the relics placed in the cathedral and the linen corporal bearing the spots of blood is still enshrined in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
Lanciano is famous as another site of a Eucharistic miracle in the Catholic Church. As the story goes, in the 8th century, when a monk was saying Mass, the Host turned into Flesh and the Wine turned into Blood. The miracle has been examined in modern times concluding that the flesh is real flesh and the blood is real blood. Today, visitors can view the relics of this event in the Church of the Eucharistic Miracle in Lanciano.
Florence, as in many cities in Italy, is both an artistic and religious destination. Wonderful churches can be found in the center of the city, which is included in UNESCO'S WORLD HERITAGE LIST. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the cathedral church (Duomo) of Florence; the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the burial place of some of the most famous Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Marconi; and Santa Maria Novella, the first great basilica in Florence, and the city's principal Dominican church, contains famous frescoes by masters of the early Renaissance.
There are more than 200 churches in Venice, many containing extraordinary masterpieces of art. The church most identified with the city is the Basilica of St. Mark. A mixture of Byzantine, Roman and Venetian architecture, the church was built by many artists and craftsmen. It is the third Basilica to stand in its place in St. Mark's Square. The first two were destroyed. The current church appears to have been inspired by the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. It is dominated by 5 large domes and contains many precious treasures. It also contains relics of St. Mark, brought from Alexandria to Venice in 828.
Turin has become a religious destination thanks to the Exposition of the Holy Shroud at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.The Shroud of Turin is a centuries old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man many believe to be Jesus. Modern science has completed hundreds of thousands of hours of research on the Shroud and still it remains controversial. Pope Benedict XVI has not publicly commented on the Shroud's authenticity, but in June, 2008, he approved the public display of the Shroud; and during his visit in Turin on May 2, 2010, he described the Shroud of Turin as an "extraordinary Icon... corresponding in every way to what the Gospels tell us of Jesus".
In addition to the Shroud, you will also find the tomb of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925). He was a Turin native, avid athlete, devout Catholic and benefactor of the poor, called the “Saint for youth of the Third Millennium.” He is so revered as a saint for young people that his body was carried to World Youth Day celebrations in Spain in 2011, again to World Youth day in 2013 in Brazil, and to Krakow in 2016.
The Basilica of Maria Ausiliatrice (Our Lady Help of Christians) houses tombs of three major saints. St. John Bosco founded the Salesian Congregation in Turin in 1864, based on the principles of St. Francis of Sales. He began a network of homes, colleges, lodging-houses, schools, laboratories and recreation homes in Italy and abroad with the purpose of preparing good Christians and citizens. St. John Bosco chose Mary Mazzarello to found the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in 1872. Her body is also venerated in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians near that of St. John Bosco. She was canonized in 1951. The third saint whose body is venerated there is St. Dominic Savio, who died at age 17 and is one of our youngest saints. He studied directly under Fr. Bosco. He was an excellent student and impressed his teacher with his holiness.
An important attraction in Milan is the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. There one can see the fully restored painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci on a wall in a room where Dominican friars once dined.
In the 4th century, St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan and St. Augustine was converted by his preaching. The Milan Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente (Saint Mary Nascent), is now the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. It took five centuries to complete and is the fourth-largest church in the world. Also visit the Basilica of St. Ambrose, containing his body. St. Ambrose is one of the four original Doctors of the Church. He was nicknamed the “Honey-Tongued Doctor” due to his speaking ability and is known for his influence on St. Augustine. (The tomb of St. Augustine can be seen in Pavia, about 25 miles south of Milan.)
A short distance from Milan, in Mesero, the Shrine of St. Gianna Beretta Molla can be visited. While pregnant, St Gianna decided to proceed with an operation risky to herself rather than have an abortion, providing us with an example of self-sacrifice for the unborn.
BERGAMO / SOTTO IL MONTE
St. Pope John XXIII, known as the Good Pope and Pontiff of the Second Vatican Council, is most certainly the world’s best known person from the Province of Bergamo, The fourth of fourteen children born to a family of sharecroppers, he was born in 1881 in Sotto il Monte, a small village near the city of Bergamo. Here you can visit the house where the great Pope was born, the church where he was baptized and a museum. Nearby you will find the farmhouse used by Pope John XXIII for vacations and a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Mother, dating from the 15th Century, where the Pope would go to pray.
Amalfi is rich in monuments. It was one of the four powerful Maritime Republics in the Middle Ages and the complex of the Cathedral is testimony to Amalfi's rich past. It includes the "Cloister of Paradise" (an ancient cemetery for the noblemen of Amalfi); the Basilica of the Crucifix (which was once the Cathedral Church but now houses a museum of religious art): the Crypt of St. Andrew (which holds bones of St. Andrew, apostle of Jesus) and the Cathedral. In the Chapel of the Relics in the cathedral are many relics of saints brought to Amalfi with the bones of St. Andrew. On the central altar is a statue of the Virgin Mary from which St. Alphonse, according to his biography, was struck by a ray of light from the Virgin's face while preaching in the cathedral. Also in the cathedral is a large painting commemorating a miracle attributed to the intervention of St. Andrew and St. Matthew. On June 27, 1544, a sudden surge in the waves sank the ships of Ariadeno Barbarossa, who had been attacking Amalfi and Salerno. Since then, June 27th is a feast day in Amalfi.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary is a large church in Pompei. It was built in the late eighteenth century and attracts more than four million pilgrims each year. It was built thanks to Blessed Bartolo Longo, a former Satanist, who repented and spent the whole rest of his life propagating the Rosary. With financial support, he built Pompeii’s famous Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, founded elementary schools and orphanages and inaugurated a print shop and technical school to give the children of convicted criminals the chance of a better life. He also wrote books on the Rosary and composed novenas and prayer manuals. The former Satanist eventually became a friend of Pope Leo XIII, who had a great devotion to the Rosary. From Pompeii he also began the popular movement that led to the solemn dogmatic proclamation of the Assumption in 1950.
Once in Pompei, also see the extraordinary archeological parks of Pompei and Ercolano, cities destroyed by Vesuvio's eruption in 79 AD. This is a UNESCO site and one of Italy's most visited attractions.