The Pontifical North American College

Wednesday: San Sisto

The chapel can still be visited in the catacombs of St. Callistus where Pope St. Sixtus II and four deacons were celebrating the liturgy when the Roman soldiers burst in and arrested them.  On the way to their execution, another deacon came forward to the pope and begged to be allowed to accompany him.  The pope replied that, while not now, in a few days time the deacon would join him in suffering for the faith.  And so did St. Lawrence go and prepare for his own death.  Now the memory of the martyred pope is kept by this modest basilica, which has quietly stood on this location for over sixteen centuries.

The foundation of the basilica here is dated to the reign of Pope Anastasius, who reigned from 399 to 401.  At that time it was known primarily as the Titulus Crescentianae, with the name of St. Sixtus being more frequently used beginning in the sixth century.  This first basilica had a nave as wide as that of the current church, having aisles and a courtyard in front as well.  Like other basilicas of this time, such as St. Peter in Chains and St. Vitalis, the entrance to the church was through an open colonnade, although this was soon enclosed.  In these early centuries the scrutinies of the catechumens were held at this church, before receiving Baptism at the Lateran Baptistery.  At the time of the Iconoclastic persecutions in the East a group of Byzantine monks established themselves in some old Roman structures behind the church around the year 800, creating the monastery of St. Mary in Tempulo.  The remains of this structure can still be seen some ways behind the apse of the current church.

Having been restored under Pope Hadrian I in the late eighth century, the basilica received a more complete rebuilding begun by Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century.  At that time the rise of the ground level had brought about many problems with the old basilica, and a decision was made to demolish the aisles while raising the floor level of the nave by about ten feet, as well as the walls of that structure at the same time.  This same pope also constructed a monastery for women religious next to the basilica, as well as installed canons regular here from England to serve as their chaplains and also serve at the basilica.  However, the death of the pope brought construction to a standstill, with the canons being unable to find the means to finish the project.  If the incomplete basilica, its walls half constructed and overall a disappointing sight, did in some way symbolize the spiritual state of the Church at the time, both the basilica and the Church were soon to find help in the same man.  St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, arrived in Rome about this time, and Pope Honorius III entrusted to him the church and monastery at St. Sixtus in 1219.  In the course of the completion of the church a miracle is recorded, when St. Dominic restored a worker to life after he had fallen from the scaffolding.  It was at this time that the church was reduced to a single nave, the aisles being demolished or remodeled for other uses.  Just a year later, the Dominicans were entrusted with the larger and more centrally located church of St. Sabina.  With the departure of the friars, Dominican nuns came to reside here, and a new monastery built for them, of a new style for this first order of cloistered nuns, being completed in 1222.

A remodeling occurred in the fifteenth century under Sixtus IV, the most visible remain from which is the door frame to the side entrance of the church.  Subsequent remodelings in the late sixteenth century and the early eighteenth centuries have given the church its current appearance, although these have been restored several times, notably after its temporary confiscation following the capture of Rome by the Italian government in 1870.  The last of these renovations took place in 1930.  The Dominican nuns left here in 1575 on account of “there not being good air” in this location, referring to the sicknesses breeding in the nearby marshes.  They moved to a new monastery in the center of the city, where the church was dedicated to Ss. Dominic and Sixtus, this one becoming known as Old St. Sixtus; this new monastery now houses the Angelicum.  A succession of various orders in the Dominican family have resided here since then, with the Third Order Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Sixtus continuing the tradition of the order at this church in the present day.

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(Note that this Station will be celebrated this year at Sant’Andrea della Valle: Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 00186 Roma, Italia)

Address: Piazzale Numa Pompilio, 8

Directions: Take the 40 or 64 from the Accaioli stop (in front of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini) to Piazza Venezia (getting off near San Marco at the south-west point of the piazza). Then take the 628 to the stop after Circus Maximus (on via delle Terme di Caracalla). Then follow this street south to the Porta Ardeatina (at the end of the road). The church is on the left.

Or take the 160 from Piazza Venezia to the church.

Walking Directions

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