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VATICAN LETTER Jul-15-2005 (820 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Pilgrimage on wheels: Hop on, hop off to see Rome's Christian sites
By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican and the city of Rome have joined forces to showcase Rome's Christian heritage by offering a bus dedicated to visiting some of the city's major spiritual sites. With so many basilicas and sanctuaries scattered across the city, tourists can now hop on special yellow and white, double-decker buses for a specially catered pilgrimage on wheels. It is called "Roma Christiana," or Christian Rome, and it makes stops at seven unique attractions, including St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. But it also offers pilgrims a chance to investigate places most often missed during a typical Roman holiday, like the churches of St. Peter in Chains, San Clemente and Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The "Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi," a Vatican-related pilgrimage agency, and Rome's urban bus system unveiled the new bus April 7, just a few days after the death of Pope John Paul II. The massive media coverage of the funeral, conclave and papal election reminded many that Rome is a sort of "capital of Christianity" with nearly 2,000 years of history, tradition and treasures waiting to be discovered. After the papal transition, some U.S. travel agents reported a sharp rise in tourism to the Eternal City, and now people interested in Rome's Christian identity can take advantage of the new initiative. When boarding the bus along any of its scheduled stops, people can purchase the $15 "Roma Christiana" ticket, which remains valid the entire day. Buses leave from Termini central train station about every hour between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tourists can get off at any of the seven stops, visit the site, then hop back on the next bus. Buses are scheduled to pass each stop once an hour. Unfortunately, even by mid-July, there were still a few kinks left to be ironed out. Only two buses had been covering the extensive route, but in Rome's notoriously snarled traffic, sometimes it would take up to two and a half hours for a bus to cover its route rather than the expected one hour. That meant pilgrims were sometimes stranded for those two hours waiting for the bus to creep through the bottlenecks and red lights. But bus staff told Catholic News Service that three more buses were set to be added to the fleet later this summer, and eventually special "Roma Christiana" bus-stop signs were to be erected along the route's seven destinations. For those just wishing to rest their feet and catch a tan on the top deck, tourists can enjoy the ride without getting off. Everyone is provided with earphones to plug into the bus' audio system to hear taped commentary in English, French, Spanish, German or Italian. The audio guide gives a mix of historical facts and fantastic legends that can leave one wondering which are accepted church traditions or which are just plain myths. Who knew, as the bus curved around St. Mary Major, that this basilica was the home of "the cradle of Bethlehem" or rather, the manger where Christ was born? And that in the basement of San Clemente, one could see the charred remains of the first-century fire -- supposedly started by Emperor Nero -- that destroyed Rome? "The charred remains could be there," said one U.S. priest who works at the Vatican, "though the 'cradle of Bethlehem' is a bunch of poppycock." Carmelite Father Reginald Foster is a world-renowned teacher of Latin who works in the Latin-language section of the Vatican's Secretariat of State. He said the history that has been passed down the millennia is more important for pilgrims to hear than the "popcorn and Disneyland stuff" of legend. He said the church has played down the claims from ancient times that remnants of the manger of Bethlehem and even Mary's milk were encased under the altar of St. Mary Major. But it is possible tourists might see "some old beams or pieces of wood" charred from the Rome fire in the ruins below San Clemente. One of the best preserved medieval basilicas in Rome, San Clemente is perched atop a pagan temple and ancient Roman homes. "You go down three levels below the church and you end up on a Roman street with Roman homes" and spring water still trickling down the street, said Father Foster. One of the Roman houses was used by early Christians as a "titulus" or a publicly recognized meeting place and place of worship. It was above or near these "tituli" that Rome's first real church structures were built. But weeding out "the concrete, real history" from the hyperbole and myth is not easy when listening to the "Roma Christiana" audio guide. Father Foster said pilgrims should tuck a reputable book in their bags to mine for the real gems and not the glittering tales that lie buried in Rome. END
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