The tradition of visiting all seven churches, the four major basilicas and three minor basilicas in Rome, was started by Saint Philip Neri around 1553 in order to share a common religious experience through discovering the heritage of the early Saints. Neri drew up an itinerary that included visits to St. Peter’s Basilica, then St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Sebastian’s, St. John Lateran, Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem, St. Lawrence-Outside-the Walls and finally St. Mary Major. He and a few friends and acquaintances would gather before dawn and set out on their walk. At each church, there would be prayer, hymn singing and a brief sermon by Neri.
My friends here in Rome along with the two priests who help with the Juventutem group at the parish made the Seven Church pilgrimage the Saturday before Palm Sunday. I was so eager to make the pilgrimage, as I had just read in the life of Saint Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, that he made the pilgrimage during one of his last stays in Rome, 50 years after he had made his private vows, of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, and spreading devotion to the Passion, in the Salus Populi Romani Chapel in Saint Mary Major.
Saint Peter’s was closed in the morning, so we were unable to begin with the morning Mass there. I actually didn’t go to Saint Peter’s, but I rather remained at the Church and awaited the group’s arrival for the Mass of the Feast of Saint Joseph. I did, however, put out the relic of Saint Peter for the Feast and to join spiritually with the visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica and the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
After the Mass and the group’s quick breakfast, I caught up with them (the life of the sacristan…). We began the longest journey to Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. We visited Saint Paul’s tomb and then the Crucifix which spoke to Saint Bridget. We continued then on the Via delle Sette Chiese (aptly named) towards Saint Sebastian’s Basilica on the Via Appia. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful weather as we walked through the fields above the catacombs. We ate a picnic lunch after the visit to the basilica.
We also visited the Quo Vadis Church where Peter asks Jesus “Quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”), to which He replies, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again”). Peter thereby gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, to eventually be martyred by being crucified upside-down.
We made our way to Saint John Lateran where we prayed at the High Altar there. We were reminded by the priest of the desire for the Church to connect intimately with the Holy Land, where Our Lord dwelt, by having in Rome (and in other cities) it’s own Upper Room (a portion of the table of the Last Supper is at St. John Lateran), Praetorium (where Our Lord was condemned to death, the Holy Stairs), Calvary (The Holy Cross in Jerusalem), Nativity (a large portion of the Crib is at Saint Mary Major), to essentially keep in memory the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
After the Scala Santa, we walked in silence to the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the Calvary of Rome. We were able to prepare ourselves for Holy Week in meditating on the Via Crucis, beholding the True Man Who bore the Cross from the place of His condemnation to Calvary. The Church is also named ‘in Jerusalem’ because soil was brought from the Holy Land to be the foundation of the Church, to localize the Church upon the same earth Our Lord was crucified.
In our walk from Santa Croce to Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, we paired off and recited the the versicle and response: Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make our hearts like unto Thine. Then we finished the pilgrimage praying the Rosary on the walk to Saint Mary Major (where Our Lord’s Nativity Crib is and the image of Mary, Salus Populi Romani mentioned above). I was able to pray before the icon of Our Lady and Child uniting my intentions to the prayers prayed there by Saint Paul of the Cross.