View of St. Peter Square and Rome, Vatican

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.

Here, small clandestine congregations, composed mostly of Jewish tradesmen-converts, immigrant slaves and lower-class freedmen, gathered under the roofs of Roman patricians who had embraced the new religion. The early Christian assemblies may have listened to the Apostle Peter’s first-hand descriptions of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. They were encouraged by Paul’s preaching, and later by circulating his letters, or other correspondence from abroad.

The faithful read the Scriptures, participated in the Eucharist and communal prayer, and welcomed and baptized new members. Often the congregations were raided by Roman authorities and, refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods, were hastened away for detention, torture and death.

House churches were mentioned in very early Christian writings. The Apostle Paul several times alluded to their existence in first-century Christian Rome. In Romans 16:3-5 he greeted his friends Prisca and Aquila ‘and the church which is in their house’. We know that Paul led a congregation which met in his rented residence (Acts 28:30). In the second century, St. Justin (100-165) records that Christians of his day met in private dwellings.

A private house, or parts of a house, used for early Christian worship came to be known as a domus ecclesiae (house church). Since the proprietor’s name was generally inscribed on a marble slab or wooden plate, known as the titulus (title), above the entrance, the house churches came later to be referred to as tituli, and to be named after their owners or donors.

There were twenty-five tituli – Rome’s original parish churches. The Liber Pontificalis (a collection of Papal biographies composed in the sixth century from earlier sources) relates that Pope Cletus (76-88), following St. Peter’s instructions, ordained twenty-five presbyters and that Pope Evaristus (97-105) assigned these senior priests to twenty-five titular churches. In the early fourth century the parish churches were confirmed by Pope Marcellus (308-9) as religious community centres and seats of Church administration. All twenty-five were certified by the Church synods of 499 and 595.

Archaeological excavations reveal gradual remodelling of many early house churches. A good number of these became official Church property around the same time as the Roman Church gained ownership of the Calixtus Catacomb. By the third century, dividing walls in many house churches had been knocked down to provide hall-like rooms for expanding congregations, as well as areas for storage and neighborhood distribution centres.

In the fourth century, with the triumph of Christianity over paganism, large basilicas were built over the earlier house churches for the liturgical purposes of the expanding Christian population. And by the sixth century all the tituli were named after saints (sometimes by simply ‘sanctifying’ the original owner).

The duties of titular priests soon included serving the Christian cemeteries, and later the major basilicas. Because they were thus ‘incardinated’ (or seconded) to different churches, the priests were known as Cardinal priests. Eventually many Cardinal priests became papal assistants and the title took on increasing importance and prestige. Even today, each new Cardinal is assigned a titular church.

Amazingly, the sites of all twenty-five original titular churches still exist and can be visited by the pilgrim to Rome today. And despite transformations down through the ages, each one contains important archaeological or artistic traces of the first Christian gathering places.


Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome.  (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.