Travel to Rome

The right toes of a bronze statue of Saint Peter in St. Peter's Basilica, has been worn down by centuries of pilgrims who traditionally touch the foot. (Michael Goulding, Orange County Register, MCT / February 26, 2013)

ROME - "SILENZIO!" says the sign just past the massive bronze doors marking the entrance to St. Mary and the Martyrs Catholic Church in Rome, one of the two or three most important churches in Christian history. The sign reminds all that this is a house of worship. Indeed, visitors from around the globe flock to the Piazza della Rotonda to see its austere, columned portico.

But the true beauty of the church is inside, where a geometrically perfect sphere could fit between ceiling and floor. A thick shaft of light flows into the space from a large circular hole - called an oculus ("eye") - at the apex of the domed roof. It's a design copied around the world. Two Italian kings and the artist Raphael are entombed along the walls.

Yet, if you got into a Roman cab and asked to go to the St. Mary and the Martyrs, you'd likely get a blank stare from the driver. No one uses the name of the church.

This is the Pantheon, and despite the altar at the back, it is revered not as a Catholic church, but as the great temple to all gods that was finished by the pagan Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. Though Hadrian put it up, Pope Boniface IV is the man who ensured that it wasn't taken down.

In the seventh century, Boniface ordered the temple cleansed of its "pagan filth" and consecrated as a church to Christian martyrs. The practical impact was to halt the stripping away (well, mostly) of the marble and stone, saving the Pantheon from the fate of hundreds of ancient treasures torn apart to build new churches, homes, shops and roads of the post-pagan Rome.

The newest pope, Francis, ruling from nearby Vatican City, won't hold the power of his predecessors in the Middle Ages. The pope is no longer the spiritual leader of a vast unified empire. Nor is he the temporal ruler of The Papal States that once stretched across much of northern Italy.

Though his voice is heard throughout the world, all Francis has to truly rule is the Holy See, based in Vatican City, one of the smallest countries in the world. It stretches a mere .2 square miles, entirely surrounded by Rome. With his predecessor, Benedict XVI, living in retirement there, the current joke in Rome goes that the Vatican has 5.9 popes per square mile.

But the legacy of the popes upon the Eternal City goes back nearly 2,000 years, to when St. Peter arrived from the Holy Land and became the first pope. Francis is believed to be the 266th Pontiff of the Catholic church. A remarkable lineage.

From the throne of St. Peter, the pope continues to wield great influence upon Rome, spiritual home of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

There is little in Rome that has not been influenced by popes. But for the visitor, here are some of the more interesting sites to visit. As a new era begins for the church, visitors can trace history by visiting places important to the men who have worn "The Shoes of the Fisherman."


The apostle St. Peter was the first pope, a position that like so many in the first three centuries of Christianity led to his martyrdom. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and the popes sat atop the spiritual world of the West. All around them were the creations of the old empire, which met with a mixed fate.


It's known as the best-preserved ancient building in the world, a space that still captivates thousands of visitors a day. Originally built as a temple to "all gods" (pan theos), it's renowned for the perfect spherical dimensions of its interior. It was ordered shut, along with Rome's other pagan temples, in 356. The temple was saved by Pope Boniface's edict converting it to a church. This lucky intervention might have been based on the erroneous belief that the space had been used to torture and execute Christians.

Whatever the reason, the decision allows modern visitors to see the brilliance of classic Roman Empire design. Inside are the tombs of kings Victor Emmanuel II and III, along with that of the artist Raphael, whose decoration of the papal apartments in the Vatican is second only to Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture, the Vatican dome and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel as artistic treasures of the church in Rome.

Look for: A thunderstorm. There are few sights as dramatic as going to the Pantheon in heavy rain, the water flowing through the oculus onto the marble floor and down into the recessed drains. When lightning flashes, the walls are illuminated in blue light.


Unlike the Pantheon, there is little doubt that the Colosseum was the site of Christian martyrdom. Beginning in 80 A.D., the Colosseum was home to spectacles in which tens of thousands, including likely some Christians, were killed in games or public executions. But in the early Middle Ages, it was not considered a sacred Christian place, as evidenced by the large amount of masonry carted away for use on other projects. By the 16th century, though, popes had declared it the site of martyrdom and it was included on pilgrimage routes.

Today, the pope each year leads a "Way of the Cross" procession on Good Friday at the Colosseum. The site is remarkably well-preserved compared with the other great "bread and circuses" site, the Circus Maximus. The once-great racetrack (it's the site of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur") has been reduced over the centuries to little more than a grassy bowl.