Most Italians are Roman Catholic. Although the Catholic faith has been a major influence on Italian culture and civic life, only about a third of Italians go to Sunday Mass regularly.

Christianity came to Rome about 10 years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Early Christians were persecuted by the Romans, but eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages the pope, the spiritual head of all Roman Catholics, ruled an influential state in central Italy. Rome became the centre of the Catholic world and a place of pilgrimage.

When Rome was eventually occupied and made the capital of Italy in 1870, the pope refused to hand over the Vatican. A series of treaties established and defined the Vatican's relationship to the Italian State. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 recognized Vatican City as an independent and sovereign state within Rome.

Today the pope lives in the Vatican during most of the year. He has a summer home outside Rome. When the pope dies, his successor is elected by the cardinals, who vote for the new pope in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

Did you know?

In 313 A.D., the Emperor Constantine gave complete religious freedom to Christians through the Edict of Milan.

There are beautiful cathedrals in most Italian cities and churches in even the smallest villages. Their bells ring out every Sunday morning, calling people to worship. Holidays, celebrations and folklore are rooted in the Catholic faith. The church's calendar is filled with Saints' days and feast days related to Christ's life.

Once the church had a great deal of influence over the way Italians lived their lives. Today that influence has declined. Catholicism is no longer the state religion. Divorce is now legal, as is abortion. Religious instruction is optional in state schools.

The Italian constitution guarantees religious freedom. Although 98% of Italians are Catholic, there are religious minorities throughout the peninsula. Descendants of Albanian refugees who came to Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries live in the south and follow the Byzantine rites. There are Jewish communities in Rome and other large cities, Protestants in Piedmont, and Muslim immigrants in several cities. Mosques have been built in Rome and other cities to accommodate the growing number of North African Muslim immigrants, mainly from Libya.
Did you know?

Thirty million pilgrims visit Italy's 1,500 religious sites each year.

Did you know?

The Pope left Rome from 1309 to 1377. During that period the head of the Catholic Church was in Avignon, France.