A walk to seven churches

A Holy Thursday tradition that dates to the 16th century

What started as a picnic to counter a Mardi Gras atmosphere in Rome has become a beloved Holy Thursday tradition. The Seven Churches Visitation started in Rome centuries ago, and usually takes place in Rome and other cities around the globe.

A statue of St. Philip Neri on the facade of Santa Maria Maddalena Church in Rome, Italy. (Bigstock.com)

The tradition has been celebrated in the Diocese of Green Bay for five years. However, it is unlikely to take place in Rome or elsewhere this year, due to COVID-19. It has been canceled in Green Bay.

The Seven Churches Visitation takes place on Holy Thursday. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist is transferred to the Altar of Repose. Here, the faithful are asked to keep watch with the Lord, as the disciples were asked to keep watch with Jesus on the night before his Passion.

In areas that practice the Seven Churches Visitation, the faithful travel to seven different churches for prayer and private reflection at the Altar of Repose in each church. Each of the seven churches is the site of a different station marking the last hours of Christ’s life. The stations reflect readings from Scripture.

  • Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:39-46)
  • Jesus bound and taken before Annas (Jn 18:19-22)
  • Jesus taken before the High Priest, Caiaphas (Mt 26:63-65)
  • Jesus taken before Pilate (Jn 18:35-37)
  • Jesus taken before Herod (Lk 23:8-9; 11)
  • Jesus taken before Pilate again (Mt 27:22-26)
  • Jesus given the Crown of Thorns and led to his crucifixion (Mt 27:27-31)

The tradition of the Seven Churches Visitation is often credited to St. Philip Neri who lived in the middle 16th century. (It was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 as an indulgenced devotion. Indulgences are believed to be of assistance to a soul immediately after death.)

At the time, even though the Roman Carnival season (like our modern Mardi Gras) ended as Lent began, the party atmosphere lingered. So Philip Neri and several companions set up a counter-point to that. They began making an annual one-day excursion to visit seven churches, often with music and prayer. The day would end with a picnic at the gardens of the Villa Mattei, now known as the Villa Celimontana. There they were often entertained by musicians and singers.

The excursions became popular and continued.

St. Philip Neri seems to have patterned his itinerary along the lines of what pilgrims of the day visited when they came to Rome: especially the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. So the seven churches St. Philip visited included these sites. His seven churches were:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica (with the tomb of St. Peter)
  • Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (with the tomb of St. Paul)
  • Basilica of St. John Lateran (the Mother Church of Rome and the pope’s cathedral)
  • Basilica of St. Mary Major
  • Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls
  • Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
  • St. Sebastian Outside the Walls

In 2000, St. John Paul II changed the last church from St. Sebastian to the Sanctuary of Our Lay of Divine Love (Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore).

The street that starts at the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls and leads to the church of St. Sebastian is still called the Via delle Sette Chiese (the Way of Seven Churches).

St. Philip may also have based his seven-site practice on another seven sites devotion that had been in place since the 12th century — visits to the seven privileged altars at St. Peter’s Basilica.

At the time, this would have been in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which was demolished in 1505 for the construction of the present church. The tradition was transferred to the new basilica and its similarly named altars. If someone cannot visit the seven churches, they can instead pray at each of the seven altars at St. Peter’s. They area identified with the phrase: Unum ex VII Altar (one of seven altars) etched in stone nearby.

The seven privileged altars are:

  • The Altar of Our Lady, commonly called the “Gregoriana”;
  • SS. Processus and Martinianus;
  • St. Michael the Archangel;
  • St. Petronilla, Virgin;
  • Our Lady of the Pillar;
  • The Holy Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude;
  • St. Gregory the Great

The tradition of visiting the seven churches spread and took on various forms. These included a Creole tradition that continues today in New Orleans of a nine churches walk held on Good Friday. The number nine is to coincide with a novena, a series of nine prayers related to an event.

Since the seven-church visits are not happening this year, perhaps people could start a new tradition on Holy Thursday such as visiting online sites of these seven churches in Rome or the websites of seven churches in our own diocese.

 

Sources: The Little Black Book – 2019; The Raccolta; Traditional Devotions and Prayers for Folk Believers; Liturgialatina.org. Zenit.org; Brooklynoratory.org; Civitavecchia.portmobility.it; The Clarion Herald; CatholicMatch Institute