Even today a visitor to the churches of Rome can step into rooms where, two millennia before our times, the first Christians professed their new faith and often awaited suffering and death.
DIVINE PROPHESIES AND A MARTYRED POPE
Many Romans claim that S. Maria in Trastevere is their city’s earliest church. Legend and history confer on it undeniable spiritual significance, and, not least, it is one of the loveliest spots in Rome.
Numerous historians assert that this ancient titulus was the first church in the world to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In fact, legends associate the site with the birth of Christ. Thirty-eight years before the Nativity, a jet of pure oil reportedly sprang from the spot where the church now stands, running all day long into the River Tiber nearby. Although modern scientists investigating the case have found that a small volcanic eruption could have caused the oil flow, St. Jerome wrote in the fourth century that the Jewish community of that time had interpreted the event as a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world.
There are many reasons to give credence to S. Maria in Trastevere’s ‘earliest church’ claim. Trastevere’s first Christian converts, recalling the miraculous fountain of oil as a prophecy of Christ’s birth, established an early meeting place on the sacred spot (now marked by a sign and small window inside the church and by the name of an adjoining street).
The martyrdom of one of early Christianity’s most important Popes gave the site even further prestige. According to tradition, the leader of the original church located where S. Maria in Trastevere now stands was no other than Pope Calixtus I (217-22), encountered earlier as the administrator of the catacomb which still bears his name. Calixtus was reportedly jailed, flogged and martyred by an angry pagan mob by being thrown from his house into a well near S. Maria, where a more recent church and piazza in his name now mark the spot.
Calixtus’ original grave has been identified in the Aurelian Way catacomb where Trastevere Christians buried their dead. He was loved and revered by Rome’s earliest Christians, who, according to tradition, gathered in large numbers in the house church he founded. Later histories mention that in the third century the Emperor Alexander Severus (222-35) gave to Christians as a tolerated place of worship the taverna meritoria, a hospice for retired or wounded Roman soldiers, located on the site of the prophetic fountain of oil.
All this is a bit confusing. But it seems likely that, due to the importance of the Trastevere Christian community, imperial authorities permitted Calixtus’ congregation to expand into the adjacent veterans’ home (there could have been Christians among the soldiers). In any case, from then on the edifice was referred to as the Titulus Calisti, and could well have been the first place for public Christian worship in Rome.
By the fourth century legend and tradition give way to historical fact in descriptions of S. Maria in Trastevere. We have records for the construction of a large church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (denoted therein as the first of its kind) by Pope Julius I (337-52), and the building appeared in the list of titular churches compiled by the Council of 499. Even this comparatively late record would grant S. Maria in Trastevere the status of one of the oldest churches in Rome.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.