Coming to Rome? Check out The Catholic Traveler’s Guide to Rome.
Today we visit one of the oldest parish churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Santa Maria is so old, in fact, that many believe this is the first church where Mass was celebrated openly.
The faithful have been gathering in this area since the time of the Nativity. It was around this time that a natural oil spring appeared and flowed into the Tiber. People saw this as symbolic of the coming Redemption. Even today people gather here to celebrate Italy’s other religion, soccer. During big games, a large screen is set up in the piazza for everyone to enjoy.
Early in the third century there was a dispute over this land between tavern owners and the local Christians. The Emperor sided with the Christians saying that he preferred the land belong to those who honor God, whatever their form of worship. Keep in mind that Christianity was still illegal at this time.
Pope Saint Callistus founded the church here and it came to be known as Titulus Callisti. He was soon martyred near this spot. The church was enlarged under Pope Julius in 340. In the twelfth century Innocent II commissioned the church we see today.
The narthex of the church contains relics from the early Church. Third century inscriptions from the catacombs, fragments from ninth century sculptures and medieval paintings line the walls.
Inside, the apse mosaic contains the first depiction of Mary on the throne with Jesus in Heaven. Christ, with his arm around his Mother, still maintains the central spot. Below the apse are mosaics that detail Mary’s life. First the Birth of Our Lady, then the Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation in the Temple, and finally, the Falling Asleep of Mary. These mosaics actually portray emotion. This was rare because the medieval art of the time was very stiff and much more abstract.
Relics of Pope Saint Callistus, Pope Saint Cornelius, Pope Saint Julius and Saint Calepodius are under the high altar.