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A Catholic pilgrim’s guide to Rome

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People visit Rome for many reasons, usually as tourists. But for Catholics a visit to the “eternal city” should also be a pilgrimage; after Saints Peter and Paul went to Rome it became the cradle of Christianity, crammed with Christian history as it slowly overtook the pagan classical city. Father Michael Rear has written what is clearly a work of personal knowledge and affection in Rome: A Pilgrim Guide (Gracewing, £14.99). He provides a daily itinerary for a week’s stay, with different programmes for mornings and afternoons, on foot on by bus or metro. For newcomers he includes lists of religious guest houses, admission times for museums and much more.

If I were to visit Rome again I would take Fr Rear’s book with me, as much for his inclusion of short prayers and extracts from popes and saints as for his particular snippets of information. For instance, I hadn’t known it was possible to visit the rooms occupied by St Ignatius of Loyola, next to his church, the Gesu; they contain relics and belongings of the saint.

He suggests visiting St Peter’s basilica around 7 or 8 am, before the enormous crowds arrive. He writes, “In the early morning, when the Basilica is quiet, the pilgrim should perhaps first walk up the nave to the confessio, the area before the Papal Altar, and pray there close to St Peter’s tomb, the goal of a pilgrimage to Rome.”

Naturally a visit to the catacombs along the Appian Way is included in the itinerary. Fr Rear writes that up to a million people may have been buried within the 140 km of passages beneath Rome, including many martyrs – a reminder of the cost of Faith which has continued to our own day. What sustained these early Christians was a firm belief in the Resurrection, reflected in the affecting inscriptions on the tombs, such as “Dear Cyrianus, sweetest son, may you live in the Holy Spirit” and “Leo, may you always live in God with all your family.”

Most visitors to Rome will not know that in the church St Gregory the Great there is a monument to a certain Sir Robert Peckham MP, who died in 1569 and whose (Latin) epitaph reminds us of the anguish of English Catholics who witnessed the destruction of their Faith during the reign of Henry VIII: “Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live without his country.”

Fr Rear also includes a fascinating, if sad, account of the last years of the Stuarts in Rome: James, the Old Pretender, his son, Bonny Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender and his younger brother, Henry, Cardinal York. It seems that Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, a Protestant with strong Scottish links, paid for the restoration of Canova’s monument to the Stuarts in St Peter’s.

There is a final chapter on “Visits outside Rome” which include Castel Gandolfo (not used by Pope Francis and now open to the public) and Ostia Antica, where St Monica died as she was waiting for a ship to take her back to North Africa. Her body, later transferred to Rome, was at first buried in the nearby village church of St Aurea and still contains a piece of her tombstone, “found in 1945 by two boys who were digging a hole for a football goal-post in the courtyard beside the church.”