Not much of Rome is open during this period of quarantine, but are any of the city’s nearly 400 churches?

To find out, I briefly took a short break from our quasi-house arrest to seek out some open churches, particularly the ancient ‘station churches’ — those traditionally open for morning and evening liturgies during Lent.

Using the advised precautions and taking the obligatory “auto-certificazione” (self-certification) form, I passed the numerous police checkpoints and headed to the Palatine Hill area, slightly south of the city’s historic center, where a number of the station churches are concentrated. 

The popular Lenten tradition of visiting Rome’s station churches (from the word statio meaning “standing place”) dates as far back as the fourth century when popes would lead processions to different churches and celebrate Mass, breaking a daylong fast with a communal meal.

The custom, detailed in the highly acclaimed 2013 book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches by Elizabeth Lev and George Weigel, has a largely unbroken history. 

The North American College has done much to keep the tradition alive, celebrating morning Masses at each of the churches throughout Lent and bringing many pilgrims with them, but the seminarians have mostly left Rome due to the coronavirus and so, too, has the tradition for this year. 

Today, I had time to visit three station and two non-station churches, and one of each was open, both of them poignant. 

The one open non-station church was the 15th-century church of Santa Maria della Consolazione near the Roman Forum, a former hospital church, dedicated to Our Lady of Consolation, for those about to die. 

Its origins are said to date back to the story of a young man who miraculously survived being hanged in 1470 for a murder he swore he had not committed. The man saw an icon of the Blessed Virgin that spoke to him as he was being executed, saying “Go, because you are consoled.” An invisible hand supported him, preventing him from choking. The church was built to house the icon, approved by Pope Sixtus IV. 

The second open church was the Patriarchal Basilica of St. John Lateran, the so-called mother of all churches, the cathedral church of the diocese of Rome, and the oldest and highest ranking of the four papal basilicas. It is traditionally visited four times as a station church during Lent, three of which visits take place during Holy Week. 

Admission today was allowed only for those who wanted to pray and the basilica was empty of faithful except for two staff, a police officer, and a Spanish Capuchin ready to hear confessions in a confessional (without wearing a mask but using a screen). The nave was almost totally cleared except for some seating near the altar. 

The basilica’s rector, Cardinal Archpriest Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, is currently in Rome’s Gemelli hospital suffering with the coronavirus.

The Lateran Altar of the Blessed Sacrament:

The Holy Stairs, or Scala Santa, adjacent to the basilica, was also closed. A notice on the front door said that because it is not a parish church, it would remain closed until April 3, though that it is now likely to be extended to April 13 to coincide with the national lockdown extension announced yesterday. 

As today marks the 15th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s passing, it seemed appropriate to visit the church of San Cesareo de Appia, the titular Roman church that John Paul was given when he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. 

Located near the beginning of the Appian Way and close to the Roman Baths of Caracalla, a church has stood there since the fourth century but its current construction was built in 1602-3. 

Dedicated to a second-century martyr, Saint Caesarius of Terracina, its link with Saint Caesarius dates back to fourth-century Roman Emperor Valentinian who brought the saint’s relics to the location. He did so after his daughter had been miraculously cured at Saint Caesarius’ shrine in Terracina, the site of his martyrdom, between Rome and Naples. 

The church, which is not a station church, is usually closed except for weekends: 

Surprisingly closed, however, was the minor basilica of Saint Anastasia on the Palatine Hill, near the Circus Maximus. Usually the fourth-century basilica is open 24/7 because it has Perpetual Adoration which began as a consequence of the Jubilee Year 2000. 

The Vicariate of Rome had originally ruled that all parish churches should be closed but then changed its mind. A sign on the door read that “according to the provisions received, in order to contain and manage the COVID-19 epidemiological infection, the Holy Mass, both on weekdays and holidays, is suspended until April 3.” 

Around the corner from Saint Anastasia is another, arguably better-known, more historically notable, minor basilica, Santa Maria in Cosmedin:

The church was built in the eighth century during the Byzantine papacy although its façade is relatively modern and completed in 1899. It remains home to the Greek Melkite Catholic community in Rome, but today it was also closed.

The minor basilica, once the titular church of Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, is also well-known for La Bocca della Verita — the mouth of truth — located in the portico of the church’s north side. A reminder of pagan Rome that continues to make itself known, legend has it that if a person places his hand inside the mouth (“bocca”) and then swears falsely, the mouth will close and sever the hand. 

No such reported case has ever taken place, and the chances are that it won’t happen during these strange days of quarantine as the usual long lines of tourists queuing up to put their hand in the bocca, as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn immortalized in the movie Roman Holiday, were nowhere to be seen. 

My last short pilgrimage was to the minor basilica of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, a late fifth-century church, restored in the 12th century and dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. According to ancient tradition, St. John was arrested at Ephesus at the end of the first century, sent to Rome for trial and put into a cauldron of boiling oil. Miraculously emerging unhurt, he was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote his Apocalypse. 

As the church is now a convent church belonging to the Rosminians, it was closed as the Vicariate of Rome ruled that only parish and mission churches could stay open, while religious houses had to be closed to the faithful not permanently resident in those communities.