Visitors to Rome visit the major sites– St. Peter’s Basilica, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and many others. Just a short walk from the Coliseum in Rome is the Basilica of San Clemente. A visit there is to take a backwards journey through the last 21 hundred years. It’s a literal and physical tour of how Christian faith took root, struggled, matured and continues to change and adapt—as it must– to this very day. No matter how many times I visit this beautiful place, I leave in awe. Before the birth of Christ, the site, next to a stream, was home to Roman families in the time of the Caesars. Then, at the same time that Christianity began to take root, worshippers of the pagan god Mithras gathered in those homes. Next, they built a Mithraic temple on the site.
In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity grew, as did Christian persecution of the Mithrics. The site then became a place where early Christians gathered. These early Christians built a church– right on top of the Mithraic temple and former homes. St. Clement’s Church was named for the third Pope, Pope St. Clement, a former Roman noble who died a Christian Martyr. That church thrived, had set backs, and grew, as Christianity did, until 1084 when it was almost destroyed in the Normans’ sack of Rome. The basilica you visit today was completed in 1108. And, as you may have guessed, it is built on top of the ruins of the earlier church. San Clemente is both a literal and visceral touchstone to Christian and western history.
It’s a church. Built on top of a church. On top of a temple. Next to ancient homes. On a small stream. When you visit the church’s lowest reaches, you will even hear the subterranean stream that has flowed for millennia. Could those first Christians, who gathered there, possibly have known the foundation of faith they were building? History is not just something that has happened in the past. When you visit Rome you are living history.
John Ecker | Pantheon