Today’s Rome is home to about 900 churches, with twenty-four—referred to as tituli—tucked away in the Eternal City’s historic center. These two dozen houses of worship are among the world’s oldest and most fascinating, but pilgrims who travel to Rome may miss visiting them because they are unaware of their existence. If travelers do discover these historic churches, they likely explore them with little or no knowledge of their historic origins.
No grand places of worship existed in the early Church in Rome. No St. Peter’s Basilica. No St. Mary Major. But the wealthy faithful of that time did come to the aid of the early Christian faith, offering their homes for holy Mass, the teaching of catechumens, and other liturgical practices, including the election of popes. For example, under the historic layers of San Lorenzo in Lucina, the Church elected the priest Damasus as pope in the year 366. Pope St. Damasus had a great devotion to the martyred Christians of his time.
Pope St. Damasus adorned the tombs in the catacombs with prose, honoring these brave souls who died for Christ. A poem dedicated to St. Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome, says, “Stripes, executioners, fire, torture, chains: / St. Lawrence’s faith alone managed to overcome all that. / Damasus, suppliant, loads these altars with gifts, / looking up to the merit of this outstanding martyr.”
In February 313, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity. Christians no longer suffered persecution at the hands of bloodthirsty Roman authorities. The edict set Christians free to openly worship their one true God and to build sacred spaces in which to worship him. This was an exciting time for the faithful.
In the fourth century, Bishop Eusebius wrote about these times in Ecclesiastical History…