First, find your way to this ancient church on the Vimian Hill, at 160 Via Urbana. Then, notice that you must step down off the street level to enter the Basilica of St Pudentiana. This is because you are going down to the level of the street in ancient Rome, and you may be forgiven if you get a chill up your spine. You are about to step into a church literally built on the house of an ancient Christian martyr. The beautiful young Pudentiana was martyred in the second century AD during persecutions of the Christians under the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161).
The story of the Roman sisters, Pudentiana and Praxedes, dates to the very first Age of the Christian Church. Pudentiana was a daughter of wealthy Roman Senator Pudens, a kinsman of the Pudens spoken of by St. Paul in his second Epistle to Timothy (II. Tim. iv. 21). Legend has it that Saint Peter himself visited this house in the time of the girls’ grandparents.
Pudentiana was a daughter of the wealthy Roman Senator Pudens, kinsman of the Pudens spoken of by St. Paul in his second Epistle to Timothy
Pudentiana and her sister Praxedes were among the earliest members of the Church, and both of them consecrated their lives to Jesus Christ. Upon their father’s death, the two sisters distributed their fortune to the poor, and devoted their time to good works, fasting and prayer. It was through their influence that their entire household, which consisted of ninety-six persons, was baptized by Pope Pius I.
In consequence of the decree issued by the emperor Antoninus (see our story on ‘Communion, Roman-Style’), which forbade the Christians to offer sacrifice publicly, Pope Pius celebrated Mass in Pudentiana’s house, and the Christians assembled there to assist at the celebration. She received them with much charity, and provided them with all the necessaries of life.
You are about to step into a church built on the house of an ancient Christian martyr. Legend has it that Saint Peter visited this house.
At the age of sixteen, Pudentiana was arrested and martyred on the fourteenth of the Calends of June (by our calendar May 19). She was buried in her father’s tomb, in the Priscilla Cemetery, which is on the Salarian Road.
Pudentiana’s house was willed to Pope Pius, and is now one of the most venerable Churches of Rome. Her relics lie under the high altar, according to ancient Christian tradition, which held that any place that contained the remains of a martyr was itself made sacred. This is the origin of the Catholic practice of venerating the relics of saints.
This is the origin of the Catholic tradition of consecrating churches with saints’ relics under the high altar.