When St. Philip Neri came to Rome from Florence in 1533, he encountered a city in upheaval. The Sack of Rome six years prior had left famine and plague in its wake. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing and the Church was rife with corruption.
The young Philip, who would spend around 16 years in Rome as a layman before becoming a priest, soon dedicated himself to caring for the city’s sick and poor.
The saint, whose feast day falls on May 26, also realized that Rome’s people were suffering from a spiritual sickness and tiredness as well, and so he set out to reinvigorate Catholics with the joy of the faith through song and dance — and jokes.
Part of St. Philip’s outreach was the revival of the Seven Churches visit. He may not be the originator of the idea of the pilgrimage to some of Rome’s most important churches, but he is credited with renewing its popularity.
After it fell out of use once again, St. Philip’s congregation of secular priests, the Oratory, revived it in the 1960s, including holding the walk one night each year, as close as possible to the way the saint would have done it.
After a two-year pause, on the evening of May 13 into the morning of May 14, around 800 people walked 15 and a half miles in the footsteps of the saint and his followers.
Police officers in cruisers drove ahead of the urban pilgrimage to block traffic as a sea of Catholics from around Italy crossed busy intersections and passed Friday night diners while praying the rosary in unison and singing the Taizé chant “Laudate Dominum,” whose words say in Latin, “Praise the Lord, all people, Alleluia.”
The rosary was prayed four times during the pilgrimage, which took almost 10 hours to complete, including stops for a sack dinner at midnight and short lessons on the virtues led by priests of the Oratory.
The seven basilicas were chosen by the saint for their importance to Christianity, and the walk on May 13-14 followed the path laid out in a 16th-century document almost certainly seen and used by St. Philip — and likely even written by him.
This document, recreated and printed into a booklet for use on the annual pilgrimage today, gives St. Philip’s guidance for those making the Seven Churches visit.
“Before setting out to make this holy Pilgrimage, each of the Brethren must lift up his mind to God, offering him the sincerity of his heart, with the purpose of desiring the sole glory of his divine Majesty in all actions, and especially in this one,” it says.
Those participating can also earn an indulgence under the usual conditions, and are asked to pray for specific intentions. These include praying for the penance of sins, the amendment of lukewarmness and negligence in the service of God, in thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins, for the pope and the Church, for sinners still in the darkness of an evil life, for the conversion of heretics, schismatics, and infidels, and for the holy souls in purgatory.
Each of the seven churches is associated with a moment of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion. At each stop, an Oratory priest preached on a virtue and its opposing vice, before everyone joined in a prayer for an increase in that virtue and for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The virtues and vices were abstinence against gluttony, patience against ire, chastity against lust, generosity against avarice, fervor of spirit against acedia, charity against envy, and humility against pride.
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After the Basilica of St. Paul, the pilgrimage followed an ancient street still called Seven Churches Way to arrive at the catacombs and the Basilica of St. Sebastian, a third-century Christian martyr.
As a layman in Rome, St. Philip Neri used to visit the catacombs of St. Sebastian to pray. One night in the catacombs, about 10 years after moving to Rome, as he prayed, a mystical ball of fire entered his mouth and went down into his chest, exploding his ribs and doubling the size of his heart with love of God.
St. Philip was changed, both physically and spiritually, by this event, which he only revealed shortly before his death.
Pilgrims next arrived at the Domine Quo Vadis Church after a silent, moonlit walk through the ancient Appian Way Park, flanked by the silhouettes of Italian cypress trees.
The small church of medieval origin marks the spot where, according to tradition, Jesus appeared to St. Peter as he was fleeing Rome to avoid martyrdom.
Peter asked Jesus, “Domine quo vadis?” (“Lord, where are you going?”), to which Christ said, “Venio Romam iterum crucifigi,” (“I am coming to Rome to be crucified again.”) This rebuke caused Peter to turn around and face his own martyrdom.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls was the penultimate stop. The church, which has the tomb of St. Lawrence, is located next to Rome’s Verano Monumental Cemetery, and was included among the Seven Churches by St. Philip Neri, Father Botta said, as a reminder of mortality.
Almost 2 weeks ago I went on St. Philip Neri's 7 Churches Walk in Rome.
800 people walked over 15 miles during the 10-hour night pilgrimage.
During the last stretch, at 5:15am, we passed through Termini train station, and Francesco caught this video of the moment. pic.twitter.com/C2SPHn5yoR
The 16th century St. Philip Neri is known for joyful holiness and for the foundation of the Congregation of the Oratory, but the legacy he left in Rome can still be traced today, even walking in the saint’s very footsteps.
Pope Francis on Sunday took a brief walking pilgrimage in the city of Rome, and prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic during a surprise visit to both the Basilica of St. Mary Major and a cross that traversed Rome during a 16th century plague.