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The Four Roman Churches You Must Visit to Complete a Papal Pilgrimage

Where: Rome, Italy
March 25, 2013 at 9:06 PM | by | ()

St. Paul's Outside the Walls, a basilica you should probably check out

It's a crazy time in the Catholic Church right now. There are two popes! It's almost Easter! Spring Break means Catholic school kids are misbehaving!

WIth all the hubbub surround the Vatican of late, maybe it's time to go old school and score you some Indulgences, AKA "Get Out of Hell Free" cards. Indulgences were once granted by the Catholic Church for good deeds done and acts of humility, but eventually they became a commodity sold or gifted to those held in favor by a corrupt church, centuries ago. If you've seen The Borgias, then you have some idea of what we're talking about. Indulgences technically don't exist anymore, but they sorta still do.

In any case, there are a few ways of going about earning indulgences, if you're into that. One is to climb the steps of the Scala Santa on your knees and reciting the correct prayers, the Scala Santa being a marble staircase supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem, where it was the stairs on which Jesus met Pontius Pilate.

Another way of earning an indulgence is to visit Rome and make a pilgrimage to each of the four "major basilicas," all which happen to be within a quick walk or subway ride of each other in la città eterna.

· St. Peter (San Pietro): The one everyone knows because it's the focal point of Vatican City. Built over the site of St. Peter's tomb, the basilica is the main spot for large Papal masses and tourists can pay to climb the winding stairs of the dome to get a view over Rome from the tippy top cupola.
· St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore): Completely dedicated as it is to the Virgin Mary, you'll find a ton of feminine imagery throughout the artwork and stained glass. Only important holidays mean the use of the entire church; normal daily masses happen in the side chapels, for a more personal experience.
· Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (Arcibasilica San Giovanni in Laterano): If you only visit one of these four, it should probably be this one because...deep breath...it's the Pope's true seat. That's why it gets the fancy title of "Archbasilica." St. John Lateran is historically the home church of the Pope, not St. Peter's as most would believe.
· St. Paul's Outside the Wall (San Paolo fuori le Mura): Just as St. Peter's was built over the burial spot of St. Peter, so St. Paul's is over the burial location of St. Paul. This also explains why it takes a little longer to reach; it's on the road to Ostia, accessible by subway line, but not in the center of Rome. If we had to pick a favorite basilica, it'd be this one for the main reason that the monks here still produce their own booze, all for sale in the gift shop. Try the eucalyptus liquor!

Once you've visited all four (supposedly with reverence and humility), have fun with your shiny new indulgence. You don't get anything physical to show for it, save for the promise from the Catholic Church that one of your sins will be swept under the rug and forgotten.

[Photo: GiuseppeMoscato]

Archived Comments:


I know this blog is meant to be largely informal, but as a practicing Catholic I thought I should correct some of the glaring errors in this article for the benefit of those reading it. First, the Catholic Church never abolished indulgences. We stopped selling them, yes, as this was a dreadful idea to begin with, but they were never abolished. Catholics can get two different types of indulgences. The one this article discusses is plenary, as is the indulgence provided to all Catholics (not everybody) upon election of the Pope. Just visiting these four Basilicas does not merit an indulgence on its own. One must also receive Communion, pray for the Pope's intentions, and receive Sacramental confession (an indulgence does not, as this article suggests, have any effect on the forgiveness of one's sins - rather, they remit the temporal punishment due of previously committed sins i.e lessen time in purgatory). Please, do your research if you're going to write about theological issues on a travel blog.


Hi TKMB, Thank you for the comment and you are correct that there is more involved during the visit to each of the basilicas in the process of the indulgences. I have actually done all of this myself, but going into the nitty-gritty super Catholic details of the types of indulgences detracts from the focus, which are the basilicas themselves.