Holy Lands of the World - Rome

About the Holy City of Rome, ancient home of the Roman Catholic and Christian Church, history of the religious city.


Rome is one of the world's oldest cities. Once it was a hilly, marshy agricultural town no one had ever heard of except for its Latin settlers. Its primitive religion, a form of animism, or spirit worship, was distinctively ceremonial, marking the seasons of the year and the major events of life with elaborate rites. These became the ceremonies of state in later times and influenced the Christian festivals and the Church calendar.

It was inevitable that Rome should become the main center of Christianity. In contrast to provincial Jerusalem, so lofty and inaccessible, where the new faith emerged, Rome was the center of a vast network of roads. By the 1st century, all sorts of foreign cults had found acceptance in Rome, where they merged with indigenous gods and ceremonies. People were dissatisfied with religion and philosophy. Disenchantment with Emperor worship and the vain formality of state religion fanned the flames of mystical cults from Greece and the Orient, especially worship of the sun-god Mithras, a Persian import. The way was paved for the vigorous new faith with its sincere promise of personal salvation.

For 15 centuries Roman Catholicism was the primary religion and cultural impetus of Western Europe, and today it claims over 550 million adherents, nearly 1/7 of the world's population. Rome is the see of the Pope, who resides in Vatican City, an independent papal state within city boundaries, since February 1929. A see is the jurisdictional area of a bishop, and the Pope is the Bishop of Rome, which became the Holy See c. 42 A.D. The death of early apostles Paul and Peter in Rome--which is well attested to--and aid, both financial and pastoral, given to churches in other cities, tended to make the Roman bishop preeminent. As Rome's political power declined, Roman bishops assumed temporal as well as religious leadership.

Rome draws hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims and other visitors annually. They are shown the Colosseum, where Christians were thrown to the lions; the Monastery of the Three Fountains, on the site of Paul's martyrdom; and numerous historic churches. The Vatican is open to visitors all year. Within it is the Sistine Chapel, private chapel of the Pope, built in the 15th century for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it is named. Impressive beyond measure is many-domed St. Peter's Basilica. A prior edifice, built by Constantine and consecrated in 326 A.D., was revered for almost 1,200 years. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had it razed to make way for the present structure, which took 120 years to build. Today St. Peter's is the largest church in the world and attracts more than 10 million visitors every year. Visiting priests are honored to celebrate mass at one of its many altars, and parents seek a head start in life for their children by having them baptized there.

Still a focal point of world travel, Rome is a place consecrated by the blood of martyrs, a long history of spiritual travail, and the prayers of the faithful.

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