Melbourne’s pilgrims have been given the choice of different routes to World Youth Day 2023. Some have opted for ‘The Italian Way’ pilgrimage. As it weaves its way to Lisbon, this route gives pilgrims the opportunity to walk the streets of Rome and visit its historical sites. They will also explore the town of Assisi, where the great saints Francis and Clare experienced their dramatic conversions.

Italy’s history is closely interwoven with that of the Church. Not only is Rome the city where popes have resided since the time of St Peter, but Italy has also produced countless saints. The history of Italian art, architecture and culture goes back centuries. and the very streets of Italy tell the Christian story!

We take a look at just some of the incredible sites that those taking ‘the Italian Way’ will get to visit on their pilgrimage.

Chiesa del Gesù

This is the ‘mother church’ of the Jesuits. Although construction of the church began in 1568, the idea for it was originally conceived by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1551, whose tomb lies within, and it is one of the first churches to incorporate a ‘baroque’ style of architecture.

Among the many fascinating aspects of this church’s history is the fact that it took the place of an earlier church built on same spot, the Santa Maria della Strada (Our Lady of the Wayside); the icon associated with the former church, the Madonna della Strada, became the patron of the Jesuits and resides in the church to this day. The Gesù also houses the right forearm of St Francis Xavier—a relic that toured Australia in 2012.

Inside, a series of glorious frescoes by Giovanni Battista Gaulli make powerful use of the trompe l’oeil effect, in which the images look as though they’re coming off the walls.

The Colosseum

As they walk ‘the Italian way’, pilgrims will connect with some of the Church’s earliest history. The Colosseum, which was constructed by the Emperor Vespasian, beginning in AD 72, became a dramatic and bloody part of that history.

While the amphitheatre was used for many events (including actual theatre), it was most famously a place of blood sport—public executions as well as gladiatorial battles and animal hunts. Within these walls, many Christians were also sent to their deaths for refusing to pay homage to Roman gods and for professing Christ as the only true Lord.

Every Good Friday, the pope leads a via crucis (a ‘way of the cross’) ceremony through the Colosseum in memory of those martyrs—a powerful reminder that their passion is a participation in Christ’s own passion.

The Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

Although pilgrimages through Rome have occurred since before the Middle Ages, it was St Philip Neri, in the 1550s, who established the Lenten tradition of making a pilgrimage through the ‘Seven Churches’, a practice that involved pilgrims visiting the four major and three minor basilicas of the Eternal City. One of the churches visited by these pilgrims was the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

According to tradition, when St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she returned with some of the relics of Christ’s passion, including a fragment of the cross and the nails used in the crucifixion. In the fourth century, Helena had a chapel built for their preservation, and they remain in the church to this day, although they are kept in a more modern, conservation-friendly chapel.

Despite being located in Rome, the church is described as being ‘in Jerusalem’ because when it was first built, the floor was covered with soil that St Helena had brought with her from Calvary. The idea was that those who entered the church would, in a sense, be stepping foot in Jerusalem. (Perhaps the closest modern analogy for this idea is the way an embassy is treated as ‘foreign soil’ within its host country.)

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The Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

Church of San Damiano, Assisi

Along with the major historical sites of Rome, Melbourne’s ‘Italian Way’ pilgrims will be visiting sites of huge historical and religious significance in Assisi.

The humble 12th-century church known as San Damiano, for instance, is where Francis of Assisi would hear the voice of the Lord calling to him from the cross: ‘Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruins!’ Famously, the church of San Damiano was in ruins at the time, and Francis interpreted this command literally as a call to repair the building that was crumbling around him. But Christ had bigger plans for St Francis to help rebuild the Church itself.

The monastery attached to the church became the first convent for the Order of St Clare, originally known as the Order of Poor Ladies—a good place, perhaps, for some of our pilgrims to reflect on God’s call on their own lives.

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Church of San Damiano, Assisi

The Basilica of St Clare

The cross from which St Francis heard the voice of the Lord is actually housed in this basilica, dedicated to the tomb of St Clare.

Construction of the basilica began in the 13th century, though the bodies of both Clare and Francis would remain hidden for around six centuries. When they were eventually discovered in the 19th century, Clare’s remains were transferred to a specially built shrine in the crypt of the basillica.

Interestingly, in 1957, Pope Pius XII declared St Clare to be the patron saint of television. The reason was that as St Clare had grown older and become too sick to physically attend Mass, she was granted the grace of witnessing a Christmas Eve Mass ‘projected’ onto the walls of her convent room.

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The Basilica of St Clare.

The Basilica of St Francis

The Papal Basilica of St Francis is the ‘mother church’ of the Conventual Franciscans, also known as First Order Franciscans (the Second Order being the Order of St Clare, and the Third Order being for lay people).

This basilica is actually made up of two churches: an upper church and a lower church. The remains of St Francis are interred in the basilica’s crypt. The hill on which it was built in AD 1228 was once referred to as the ‘Hill of Hell’ because of the number of criminals put to death there. Now, having been consecrated by the presence of a basilica, it is referred to as the ‘Hill of Paradise’.

The architecture of this basilica is something quite unique, often described as a synthesis of the Roman and Gothic styles. The interior is adorned with frescoes by artists from the Roman and Tuscan schools, making it a feast for both the eyes and the soul.