We are impressed by the number of churches in our neighborhood.
There are eighteen churches on the map. They are all within 815 meters from our apartment. They are all south of the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. I have listed the times of services posted at the entrance. There are eight large churches north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II but less than 800 meters from our apartment. Several of these churches hold art treasures by Caravaggio, Raphael, Sansovino, and others. Below is a collage of the eighteen churches in our neighborhood. The order of photos (left to right, then top to bottom) is the same as the map, above, going around counterclockwise from the top left.
Saint Peters Basilica, the largest church in the world, is 1,200 meters from our apartment.
Some churches are modern faith communities within ancient stone buildings. God showers his love on us through their presence and the sound of their bells. Several of the churches in the Via Giulia neighborhood have websites for their communities. Many of them have entries in Wikipedia. Most of them can also be viewed on Google Maps StreetView.
Many of the churches were built in the 16th and 17th centuries after Pope Julius II laid out the plan for Via Giulia in 1508. Some churches are much older. San Lorenzo in Damaso (row 3 column 5 in the collage) was originally the home of Pope Damasus, who converted one of the rooms of his home to a church in the 380s. The current church building was built in the 15th century by Bramante and restored after a fire in 1944.
Why are there so many churches?
Some churches are national churches. San Biagio (row 1 column 1 in the collage) is the National Church of Armenia. Santa Maria in Monserato (row 1 column 5 in the collage) is the National Church of Spain. Even though there are five churches within 250 meters of our apartment, on Sunday we usually attend Santa Susanna, the American Church, which is a bus ride across town. There, we attend the same Roman Catholic service as in hundreds of other churches in Rome, but the presider is an American and all services are in English. Santa Susanna is staffed by Paulist Fathers. The closest church, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini (row 3 column 6 in the collage), was the national church of Florence (Italy was not unified until 1870). Since it is so convenient, we have attended services there many times. The church took more than 100 years to complete (1508 to 1656) and contains relics, crypts of famous 17th century architects, and an outstanding sculptural group in marble: The Baptism of Christ sculpted by Antonio Raggi in 1686.
Some churches are a part of a convent or monastery. Santa Brigida di Svezia (Saint Bridget of Sweden) (row 3 column 3 in the collage) is the church of the Brigidines in Rome. The order of Saint Bridget balances active and contemplative life. There are between 20 and 30 nuns in the convent near our apartment where they operate a bed and breakfast. We have attended weekday services in that church.
Some churches are centers for people who wish to pray for a certain cause. Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e Morte (row 2 column 4 in the collage) is a sizeable church built in the 16th century by a confraternity who collected the bodies of the unknown dead and gave them a proper Christian burial. The baroque façade is decorated with winged skulls and a clepsydra (a winged hourglass, symbolic of death).
Some churches were funded by wealthy families. San Girolamo della Carita (row 2 column 2 in the collage) was built by the Spada family who has their palace in the next block.
Some churches were built by wealthy Cardinals or Popes. For more than 1100 years, some areas of central Italy were Papal States, governed by the Pope as head of state. Due to diverse objectives and priorities it is probably better that church and state are now separate in the western world. Some churches were built because some Popes were vain and wanted to erect monuments to themselves. Since living in Rome, we have discovered some “dirty laundry” in our church history. Perhaps it is unfortunate. To be clear, dirty laundry comes from humans, each of whom has shortcomings. Dirty laundry does not come from God, who has no laundry.
Some churches were built to serve a certain group of people. Sant’Eligio degli Orefici (row 1 column 6 in the collage) was built by the Guild of Goldsmiths in 1509, when they split off from the Guild of Ironworkers.
Is there greater devotion?
If the number of churches is a criterion, central Rome leads the world. We have not done a scientific per capita study of church attendance. Such a study may not answer the question, either. The church is visible in Rome, since Rome is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and since there is so much history visible in the city. When we were living in Oman, Islamic faith was visible. There were mosques in every neighborhood and a majority of people said their daily prayers, sometimes in the mosque. Muslims worship the same God as Christians – they just have a different perspective. I believe God is big enough to accommodate that. We were at a mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica on a Tuesday in August at 11:00 and there were more than 150 people in attendance. There was nothing special about the mass – it was one of six of the daily scheduled weekday masses plus tens of unscheduled masses (said by priests visiting Saint Peter’s with a group from their home congregation).