Peter is here. And Paul is here. In fact, the remains of countless martyrs and saints, both familiar and unknown, linger beneath the streets, behind the walls, and under the altars.
I never actually canceled the trip to Italy; I didn't have to. Nobody was traveling in May 2020. Then, the plan was to observe the 100th birthday of St. John Paul II at his tomb. Sadly, it was not meant to be. But the two intervening years have brought some significant developments in our lives and changes that have framed our pilgrimage in a very different way. Family graduations, engagements, marriages, and births have, of course, occurred. But a more fundamental change for the two of us has come with Andrew's entry into formation for the permanent diaconate. Don't get me wrong: with three years of discernment remaining, we're a long way from taking measurements for a dalmatic and stole. But our focus is different from what it was two years ago and in ways we've felt here in Rome.
First, the sheer number of churches is mind-boggling. With over 450 of some significance, choosing how to spend a week here is challenging. We will never see it all, and with temperatures hanging near 100 degrees, we probably won't be doing as much as we would have in May. But as we began to research where we should go, we discovered a medieval list of seven pilgrim basilicas. We figured that if we didn't walk, spread them out over the better part of a week, and added one more church to the mix, we could pray for one of our children at each basilica. Hallelujah, we had a plan!
Here's what we've observed. There's no such thing as a favorite church -- at least not for us. Each basilica offers something unique, something that sets it apart from every other and makes it irreplaceable. Some basilicas are in better condition. Some are more ancient; some more active or more centrally located; some more opulent; some less frequently visited. But more often than not, the churches of Rome are all about the places they mark and the relics protect. It's all about the saints and their treasures, every tangible connection to the earthly life of Jesus, the martyrs who died here, and the bones they left behind. Peter, Paul, Lawrence, Sebastian, Clement: these shrines help us to experience them not only in history but in the mystery of the Communion of Saints.
Looking at the great colonnade of St. Peter's, it's amazing to think that all this was inspired by the earthly remains of a fisherman from an insignificant backwater of the most powerful empire in history. And what's more, this son of Jonah did not have a sterling record as a disciple of Christ. When Jesus needed him most, Peter failed. But Jesus didn't respond by pushing Simon aside; instead, Christ called him forward. I find it reassuring that the largest church in the world is built as much on Christ's forgiveness and mercy as it is on Peter's confession of faith. But it is also encouraging that by the time of his martyrdom in Rome around AD 64, Peter had abandoned self-protection and self-interest and become a man both willing and able to lay down his life for the sheep.
Peter is here. And Paul is here. In fact, the remains of countless martyrs and saints, both familiar and unknown, linger beneath the streets, behind the walls, and under the altars. The saints are not lost heroes, locked in the side chapel of another age. They live in the relics we venerate, in good bones which form the Church's frame across history. There is tangible evidence for a great deal of what we believe. The stories the Church has told us are true. We need only find our part in them, embrace the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and allow God to form good bones in us.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.