SANCTUARY OF MENTORELLA: the secret holy place embedded in the stone, 1 hour drive from Rome

Updated: December 3, 2013

The sanctuary of Mentorella is a little treasure hidden on the Prenestini mountains, 1 hour drive from Rome. This is one of the oldest sanctuaries in Europe, and it is dedicated to the Madonna Delle Grazie. Many things about this temple are special, starting from its position: the buildings are clinging to a cliff on the mount Guadagnolo, beautifully embedded in the stone.

Aerial view of the sanctuary

The sanctuary of Mentorella was particularly loved by pope John Paul II. Fascinated by this secret place, the pope came here several times during his papacy to reflect and pray. "This place helped me to pray a lot. This is also why I desired to come here today. Prayer, that expresses in several ways the relationship between men and God alive, is also the first task and the first annunciation of the Pope".

The curious fact is that I visited the sanctuary just yesterday (a trip I enjoyed a lot) and I thought about John Paul II immediately, as soon as I arrived. Even before knowing about his connection with this place. Why? Because the priest who was in front of the church, red cheeks and thick eyebrows, was talking italian with a strong polish accent, and his voice was really similar to the pope's voice!

Entrance to the church, on the right the Polish priest is welcoming the pilgrims

The presence of a polish priest in Mentorella, and the predominance of polish names in the little cemetery behind it, can be explained by the history of this place.

According to the original tradition, the Roman general Placido saw an apparition of God while he was hunting on this mount. After the episode, Placido converted to Christianity, he and his family were baptized, and he adopted the name Eustachio. After the conversion Eustachio had an adverse fate (he lost all his physical possessions, and moved to Egypt where his wife and kids were kidnapped). But eventually he was called back to Rome to fight for the empire. He earned great honors in battle against the Persians, and he also reunited with his family.

But when asked celebrate his victories by making sacrifices to pagan gods he refused, so the emperor Adriano executed him. A very tragical execution: he and his family were tortured and roasted alive inside a brazen bull. This is how Eustachio became a martyr.

Internal of Saint Eustachio's temple, in the top part of the sanctuary of Mentorella

Then in the IV century this sanctuary was erected in his honor, for the will of the emperor Constantine. Through the centuries, it belonged to the benedictine monks of Subiaco (until late XVI century), then to the gesuiti order until 1879, then to the benedictine again, until pope Pio IX gave it to the polish order of Padri Resurrezionisti, in 1957. And they are there in the present days.

So three things are peculiar about this place: the original cult of Saint Eustachio, the benedictine tradition through the centuries, the connection with pope John Paul II.

And I saw traces of all of them in my visit. When I arrived the first thing I saw was the church, with several statues and prayers dedicated to the holy father John Paul II. Inside the church I could only hear two sounds: the wind outside, and the prayers of two nouns sit in the first benches.

My dad wandering around the main church, two nouns praying in the first row

Then behind the main church there is a fork. On the left, on the same level of the church, is a very fascinating place: a benedictine cave. And just at the entrance of the cave is a ossuary containing skulls and bones of dead monks, with a warning camping on the marble: Remember, what you are, we were, what we are, you will be. Hmmm... Interesting perspective. They're actually right!

Ossuary (left) and benedictine cave (right) at the sanctuary of Mentorella. Do you see the candles inside the cave?

Entering the cave was really suggestive: there is an altar with flowers and relics inside the rock, but it's not super easy to access is, as the passage is narrow. I would not suggest this to claustrophobic people.

Taking the right at the fork instead means climbing the Holy Ladder (Scala Santa). The Holy Ladder is a series of marble steps, each one incised with the name of a small town in this area. The holy ladder is the way to reach the top part of the sanctuary, where there is the core temple of Saint Eustachio, the bells (with an alert on the marble beside them: don't ring the bells if your heart doesn't beat for Christianity), and a magnificent panoramic view over the valley.

Incredibly, here in this top part is where we (I did this trips with my parents) met an old date friend of our family, Felice! We were all really amazed at the coincidence, as this is really a place where the odds of meeting someone you know is really near zero!

We stayed on top for awhile, chatting with Felice, enjoying the view and taking pictures, and at the end we left this beautiful sanctuary, which I totally loved.

We left because there was another point of interest we wanted to add to this trip: the little town of Guadagnolo, just 1 km away.

One of the nouns had finished praying and after climbing the Holy Ladder with us she came on top to ring the bells

But before leaving, I didn't resist taking some final pictures from the altar on the little hill near the entrance...

From the altar above the statue of John Paul II

So, if you plan a visit to the sanctuary of Mentorella, I really suggest you to imitate me and not miss Guadagnolo. This is the highest town in my region, with only few dozens of inhabitants -almost a ghost city-, and it's very very picturesque. Despite the scene is a little ruined by huge antennas (being a strategic high point, the mount Guadagnolo has been exploited to the maximum for telecommunications), the scenario is beautiful.

There are little stony houses crowding the top of the mount, and a 360° panorama. I was there yesterday and the setting put a smile on my face! Despite the cold wind. And despite the freezing air. This is my final picture for this page, the center of Guadagnolo.

The center of Guadagnolo, super picturesque town near the sanctuary of Mentorella

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