Pilgrim Guides


Churches: The Four Major Basilicas

“Major Basilica” is the title given to the four highest-ranking Roman Catholic Church buildings. Several popes have declared a “great remissions and indulgences for sins” which were to be obtained “by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles.” There is “not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins” to those who fulfilled certain conditions: First, as truly penitent, they had to confess their sins, and, second, they had to visit on pilgrimage these four churches.

  1. St. Peter’s Basilica, also called the Vatican Basilica is built over the burial place of Saint Peter. Perhaps the largest church in the world, it is used for most of the chief religious ceremonies in which the Pope participates.
  2. Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, also known as the Ostian Basilica because it is situated on the road that led to Ostia, is built over the burial place of Paul the Apostle.
  3. Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, also called the Lateran Archbasilica, is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is the only one called an “archbasilica”. Itis the seat of the Pope and the site of the Papal Cathedra, and is the oldest and first in rank of the major basilicas.
  4. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, also called the Liberian Basilica because the original building (not the present one) was attributed to Pope Liberius, is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hence its name of Saint Mary Major, i.e. the Greater.


The four major Basilicas can be covered in half a day.

1) Begin with St. Peter’s because it usually has the strictest security and longest line before entry.  It officially opens at 7:00 am but pilgrims form lines as early as 6:00 am.

2) Next go to the farthest out which is St. Paul outside the Walls.

3-4) St. Mary Major and John Lateran are both easily interchangeable because they can be accessed by major bus routes and the metro.

This itinerary would take a whole day if one begins with a Wednesday Papal audience at St. Peter’s Basilica which is usually from 9:00-11:00 a.m.