There are a lot of churches in Rome. I’ve heard 900-something, but I’m not really sure. There are eight or nine chapels in the building I live in, but I might be forgetting some. Needless to say, it seems a little too late for a master plan to ensure efficiency.
The closest Rome ever came to an efficient program of church construction was probably right at the beginning, with the tituli, which were really just the houses of prominent Christians where the faithful gathered to worship, sometimes in secret. Titulus refers to the name of the owner, usually written on a plaque by the door. These centers weren’t laid out in any logical plan, but depended on whoever had a big enough living room (well, courtyard) to accommodate the whole proto-parish. When Christianity came out into the open after the Edict of Milan, the city’s faithful erected church buildings on the site of the tituli, which often enough coincided with sites of martyrdom. A few of the station churches are also built on the site of an old diaconia, basically an early Christian charitable distribution center.
Once they were legal, Rome’s Christians didn’t have trouble coming up with reasons to build churches. Sites of martyrdom and miracles deserved to be commemorated. Pagan temples too beautiful to be torn down were repurposed. Donors wanted to memorialize their loved ones. Religious orders needed their own churches too. So did hospitals and schools. Noble families. Groups of expats. Seminaries. Pilgrims. You get the drift.
Roman church building has always been a very human process, which is to say there are reasons it has happened the way it has but those reasons are not always entirely logical. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then it is only fitting that the architectural face of the Church should be human too. Human and, one must add, divine, because, as I’ve noted before, Rome’s churches are extraordinarily beautiful. Some more so than others, but, still, there are churches here that, if they were located in any other city in Europe, would be world famous. In Rome, they’re about #186 on the list.
So far as I can tell, there was no master plan for the station liturgy, either. Or if there was, it became unrecognizable a dozen or so centuries ago, when the exigencies and accidents of life meant delays and detours, swapping one place for another and the like. Sometimes you get a cluster of churches in the same neighborhood, but this is accidental. This week was one of those happy accidents, where I found myself heading back to Trastevere. This working class neighborhood used to be the place on the other side of the tracks–or, in this case river–a bit scruffy and rough-edged. Today it’s trendy, a place college students hang out. It’s one of those places with narrow winding streets, filled with little eateries and chapels, in which you always get turned around and tell yourself it’s OK because you’ve discovered something new. In addition to the churches, I also went back to Trastevere this week for sushi because, hey, I like the little eateries, too.
On the station itinerary last week were Trastevere’s two most famous churches, Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere, each one rich with layers of history and devotion and glittering with mosaics. This year, due to renovations at Santa Balbina, we added San Bartolomeo on the Tiber Island, named for the apostle martyred by being flayed alive; today it is a shrine to modern martyrs. By coincidence I also found myself twice saying Mass at a church even more tucked away in Trastevere’s alleyways, the eleventh century Santa Maria in Cappella, which serves as the chapel of a home for the elderly founded by St. Frances of Rome at the end of the fourteenth century. Another gem, touched by layers of holiness and history.