Cities that have a great artistic and historical tradition are blessed with a great heritage of important churches, that are often at the center of the city’s history and are among the most important touristic attractions. But we need to think of cities, also the very ancient ones, like Rome, as living organisms, that expand in the course of time.
Talking about Roman Basilicas, we saw how some of them were built to fulfill the needs of people in very recent times. We have already discussed several of them, and we mentioned how the Church provides for places of worship in areas that began to become populated. One of these areas was the Parioli, that we have already mentioned in connection with the Basilica of Sant’Eugenio.
Now we return again to this area to talk about another church, Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria (Immaculate Sacred Heart of Mary’s Basilica). The project for this church started under Benedict XV who wanted to build a Temple dedicated to Saint James (James, Giacomo, was the secular name of the Pope). He asked the Claretian missionaries to take charge of this church, but the initial project, which was huge, didn’t work out. The successor of Benedict XV, Pius XI, gave the architect Armando Brasini the responsibility to continue with the construction and in 1924, the first stone was set. The Pope asked that the church be named after the Immaculate Sacred Heart of Mary. But the construction of the church was not to be completed soon. Also, due to the Second World War, the construction was suspended for 10 years. The temple was inaugurated on December 7, 1952, by Pope Pius XII.
The present pastor of the Basilica, Father José Maria Hernández was so kind as to answer some questions about this Basilica. First of all, he spoke about the people who form his congregation: “The people who attend our Basilica-Parish of the Immaculate Sacred Heart of Mary at Parioli is made up mainly of the traditional inhabitants of this Roman district, who belong to a higher socio-economic and cultural level. But in recent years people have aged and young couples have a tendency to move to other less expensive areas of the city. At the same time, the numbers of immigrants from other countries (Latin American, Asian and African) have grown, mainly assisting the elderly (carers, helpers). This strong presence of immigrants is also felt in our celebrations because most of them confess to being Catholics (for example, Filipinos, Ecuadorians, Salvadorans …), but also participate in the social and charitable services that our Parish tries to offer them.”
Given this very multicultural context, he explained: “Participation in Holy Mass and other Sacraments (Baptism, First Communion, Penance) is still quite high in traditional families and above all in older people, although many of them experience physical difficulties for this attendance. Instead, Sacramental practice has declined in other age groups, starting with the boys once their initiation catechesis is finished. Other than the impact of secularization, we must add here the fact that several families have a second residence outside Rome or travel frequently during the weekends. On the other hand, the abundance of churches and the variety of celebratory offerings that exist in the Eternal City propitiate a certain dispersion of the faithful and a lesser sense of belonging to their own Parish.”
Even if this is a new church, it has a lot to offer artistically: “The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Maria in Parioli is very relevant for its size, originality and architectural beauty, although the initially planned dome has not been completed. The Basilica is worthy of admiration for some of the mosaics such as that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary which presides over the central altar or the other of the Holy Family in the chapel called San Giuseppe.
Among the paintings are the two dedicated to the Madonna by the Romanian painter Elena V. Constantinescu and the magnificent polyptych (9 large paintings in total) on the Baptism of Jesus and on the symbols of Christian initiation carried by angels, a true masterpiece of the Armenian painter Gregor Sciltian (1900-1985). In the crypt of the Basilica, the poly-scenic crib nativity is highly appreciated, which through 23 beautiful dioramas faithfully present the birth and childhood of Jesus, to which are added 21 other scenes from the public ministry, the Passion and Easter.”
We also asked the priest about the notable people connected to this church and important events of this church: “Even before completing the construction of the temple, the crypt below was the seat of the Parish, erected by the Vicariate of Rome in 1936. In it some members of the Spanish royal house were baptized and St Oscar Arnulfo Romero celebrated his first Mass here as well. After the inauguration of the temple, numerous ecclesiastical and civil personalities attended it. Among the events to remember we can mention, for example, the consecration of Rome to the Immaculate Heart of Mary made by Card. Micara in 1953, the granting of the rank of Basilica made by St John XXIII in 1959 (then declared title for Cardinals by St Paul VI in 1965) or, more recently, the visit of St John Paul II in December 1981.”
Fulton Sheen often came to pray in this Basilica in the first years of its existence.