There was a community of Christians in Bologna as early as the beginning of the fourth century : among them were Vitale and Agricola, who were to die as martyrs in the course of the persecutions ordered by emperor Diocletian (303-305).
The city was assigned its first bishop, Zama, after the Edict of Constantine in 313. The diocese came under the Metropolitan See of Milan, and it was to be the great patron saint of Milan, Saint Ambrose himself, who was to give a vigorous impulse to the young Bolognese church. He came to Bologna in person, to witness the exhumation of the remains of Vitale and Agricola, a touching gesture that was appreciated by the whole city, to whom its martyrs were the symbol of a renewed civic spirit.
Towards the middle of the fifth century, Bologna had as its bishop Saint Petronius, destined to become the city's patron saint: to him we probably owe the Churches of Mount Oliveto (today known as San Giovanni in Monte) and Santo Stefano, where Saint Petronius was buried and where his earthly remains still lie, with the exception of his head which has been in the grand Baslilica dedicated to him in Piazza Maggiore, since 1743.
It would seem that in the fifth century bishops already resided in the very heart of town, where the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Peter now stands. This is, indeed, where the baptistry, the hospice for the poor and the first boarding school for priests and deacons were first located.
With the spread of the Christian faith, which swept away pagan cults, the countryside began to be riddled with churches, complete with baptismal founts and presided over by an archpriest whose job it was to provide religious assistance to the new communities of believers. Among the most ancient of these parishes, known as "pievi", are San Giovanni in Persiceto, Monteveglio and Budrio. Only in the XII and XIII centuries did they begin to build churches which were subject to the pievi, i.e parish churches.
During the Byzantine domination, (535-727) the Church of Bologna moved from the jurisdiction of Milan to that of Ravenna. It is this period that the Bolognese devotion to Saint Apollinaire, the bishop of Ravenna, dates back to. The domination of the Lombards in 727 also left its mark on the town: the group of churches that come under the name of Santo Stefano became the headquarters of the conquerors, as attested to by the so called "Pilate's pail", a marble vase with an inscription on it recording the privileges granted to the Church of Santo Stefano by the Lombard kings.
During the battles between the Papacy and the Empire, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and under the rule of Frederick Redbeard, the Bolognese Church remained faithful to the Pontiff, even though it had to submit to heavy Imperial meddling which often pitted schismatic bishops against legitimate ones. Despite the difficulties and obstacles the city had to cope with in the Middle Ages, it was in those years that the University of Bologna- the first one in Italy - was founded. We can not be sure as to what relationship there was between the first masters of the university and the Diocesan or Capitular schools, but it is certain that, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the final examination and the graduation ceremony took place in the Cathedral. From then until the end of the eighteenth century, many members of the diocesan clergy held chairs in the university of Bologna.
During the Middle Ages the bishops of Bologna became more and more influential. After having played a significant role on a political and cultural level, the bishops acquired importance in the economic and social field as well: they granted ample portions of Church territory to the people to enable them to cultivate it, thereby making the most of the land which would otherwise have been left fallow, support the population and contribute to the birth of associations which cemented links of solidarity and communion among the citizens.
Of particular significance for the history of the Bolognese Church, from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, was the presence in the city of Benedictine monks and of other forms of consecrated life. Starting from the thirteenth century, new religious orders had been founded: the mendicant orders. Born with the intention of testifying more vigorously to the evangelical ideals by means of a community life based on poverty and prayer, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Hermits and the Servites offered, from their convents, not only an example of a life of faith, but also of material help to the poor and ill. Their work, later to be matched by the work of a few lay confraternities such as the Laudantes, and the Disciplined or Beaten, contributed to the rise of the hospitali, equipped to take in pilgrims, wayfarers and strangers.
While the fourteenth century was marked through and through by a lively religious fervour based on charity and prayer - as attested to by the many religious orders and by the reconstruction of Church property - the fifteenth century ushered in a religious crisis. Thanks, however, to bishop Niccolò Albergati and to the "Franciscan" nun Caterina de' Vigri, there was a revival of Christian devotion: not only was the discipline of the secular and regular clergy revived, but the education of the people and of the clergy were also seen to. The Council of Trent, summoned by Paul III in1542 in the attempt to reshape the unity of the Church, which had been lacerated by the Protestant reformation, held a few of its sessions in Bologna, in 1547. These took place in the Basilica of Saint Petronius and in Palazzo Sanuti (today known as Palazzo Bevilacqua).
However, it was thanks to Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1522- 1597) the first archbishop of Bologna, that the Bolognese Church was able to lift its head high: his pastoral visits, his synods and his exemplary life made the clergy and the people aware of the need to follow the regulations set down by the Council. The seminary that the Cardinal founded sent forth priests educated in a new spirit of faith and mercy. These men managed to give new vigour to the parishes that they were sent to govern, and the people began to reacquire the desire to participate in the life of the Church.
During Paleotti's bishopric there were several new initiatives, all animated by a lively commitment to teaching and to charity. Among the most important were the Congregation of Christian Doctrine, created for the religious instruction of the people, including children, the Magistrates' Court of Agreement, created to sort out conflicts between lower-income people, and the Company of the Poor, a society for mutual aid, assisting the poor and the ill. Another great undertaking of the Cardinal was the foundation of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament whose purpose it was to honour the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist and also offer concrete help to the most needy members of the parish. He also regulated the processions for the Feast Day of the Corpus Domini in each of the parishes. This gave rise to a tradition that lasts unto this day, the celebration of the "Decennale eucaristica" or "Decennial of the Eucharist", commonly known as the celebration of the "addobbi", or "decorations", named after the custom of adorning the streets that the procession was to pass along.
The Cardinal also deserves credit for reconstructing the Cathedral of Saint Peter where he built a sumptuous new Chapel and a crypt where a few relics of protomartyrs Vitale and Agricola, and the first bishops Zama and Faustiniano, were placed. This was meant to emphasize the religious meaning of the bonds that linked the Cathedral with the origins of the Church and the continuity that it represented.
The great undertaking of spiritual renewal sparked by the Council of Trent continued apace until the end of the sixteenth century. New fervent religious orders sprang up in this period (Jesuits, Capucine monks, Barnabites, Oratorians, Theatines) and were greatly successful in reaching out to different social classes. There were problems, on the other hand, in female convents, which many upper class families used as places to stash away their daughters, a much cheaper resort than marriage. In the attempt to find a solution to the problem, foundations like the "Monte del Matrimonio" bank were founded, to provide dowries to young girls who did not feel the vocation to becoming a nun.
In the seventeenth century the bolognese Church wintessed an ever more vigorous growth of all the initiatives for catechesis and charitable enterprises: the intensity of religious practice, the tendency towards mystical experiences that was to be found in all the social classes, the work of reconstruction of the churches, all reached their acme. The intense religious life of these years left however a few problems unsolved, which became more and more urgent as the new currents of thought that tended to oppose reason to faith began to spread.
Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (1675 - 1758) who became Pope with the name of Benedetto XIV, understood the reasons for the unrest and with his pastoral visits and services provided directions and examples for all the clergy and the people to follow. He tried to maintain an open dialogue with the more educated classes, thereby fostering, among other things, a renewal of the study of the local history of the church, and thus strengthening the ties between the church of his day with its historical roots. He also deserves credit for having concluded the reconstruction of the cathedral and the new sanctuary of the Madonna of Saint Luke, which had been begun in 1723 and was to be consecrated by his successor, Cardinal Vincenzo Malvezzi, in 1765.
In the age of Englightenment and libertinism of the seventeenth century, a particularly significant voice was that of Father Giulio Cesare Canali, the rector of the parish of S.Isaia, whose pastoral work was directed towards a serious sprituality, effective teaching and a renewed sympathy for the poor: to this purpose he founded the Congregation of Charity and a Hospital for the Abandoned.
The Church of Bologna was deeply troubled by the political changes that took place at the end of the eighteenth century: on June 19th , 1796, French troops entered the city bringing with them a new republican political system, based on the ideals of the French Revolution, which were hostile to religion. As a consequence, religious orders and brotherhoods were suppressed, charities and welfare associations were secularized and fredom of worship was limited; the Diocesan see, after the death of Cardinal Andrea Gioannetti (1722 - 1800), remained vacant for two years.
The Bolognese Church was able to recover from these devastations only after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. The task of reorganizing the Diocese, restoring the Cathedral and the archbishop's residence, re-establishing the celebrations of the Decennials of the Eucharist and rebuilding the religious communities and charities, fell to Cardinal Carlo Oppizzoni (1769 - 1855).
With the end of the pontifical administration, as of June12th, 1859, Bologna came under the rule of the House of Savoy: this marked the beginning of a long a difficult period of strained relationships with the civil authorities, so much so that the archbishop's residence remained off-limits to the bishops, who had to reside in the seminary, until 1882. However, despite these tribulations, the Church of Bologna continued to give signs of great vitality with personalities such as Msgr Giuseppe Bedetti, Father Giuseppe Gualandi and Father Cesare Gualandi. Charitable enterprises flourished and there also new congregations, such as the Minims of Our Lady of Sorrows, which was founded by Saint Clelia Barbieri (1847 - 1907). To cope adequately with the rampant secularism and anti-clericalism of the times, Giovanni Acquaderni founded the Italian Catholic Youth Society, the seeds of which were to become the Italian Catholic Action.
In the effort to find the right place and role for Catholics to play in the new organization of the Italian republic, Cardinal Domenico Svampa (1851 - 1907) interpreted the spirit of the times with wisdom and discernment. He thus not only went to homage King Vittorio Emanuele III on his visit to Bologna but also supported the founding of a lay banks and welfare associations, such as the Casse Rurali and the Società di Mutuo Soccorso.
In the course of the World War I and the first post-war years, the Church in Bologna was particularly active. Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa (1854 - 1922) who went from archbishop of Bologna to Pope, with the name of Benedict XV, was a tireless apostle of peace during the first global conflict. His successors in the Bolognese see, cardinal Giorgio Gusmini (1855 - 1921) and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Nasalli Rocca (1872 - 1952), carried out an intense pastoral activity. Cardinal Nasalli Rocca, in particular, deserves credit for organizing the National Eucharistic Congress of 1927, for building a new seminary and for lending renewed vigour to various different Catholic enterprises.
It fell to him, moreover, to support the church during the second World War. He helped the refugees and the homeless, rescued prisoners who had been sentenced to death and saved several places of worship from being destroyed. After the city was liberated, the civil and military authorities, as well as public opinion at large, acknowledged his great contribution to the safety of Bologna, in the throes of passing from the control of the Germans to the Allied command.
In the post-war years Cardinal Nasalli Rocca started the reconstruction of the churches that had been damaged or destroyed and celebrated the second diocesan Eucharist Congress in 1947, as well as the Holy Year in 1950.
At his death, which was mourned by all the diocese, he was succeeded by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro (1891 - 1976), who is remembered for his intense and multifarious activities: the grand mission of the Pro Citate Cristiana, the building of new churches, the renewal of liturgy, the celebration of five small-scale synods and two diocesan Eucharistic Congresses and, most of all, the effort to regain the positions lost by Catholics in a city famous for its leftist sympathies. His personality anmd his dedication made him a prominent figure in the Vatican Council II as well as in the early post-conciliar years.
When Cardinal Lercaro resigned the diocese in 1968, his place was taken by cardinal Antonio Poma (1910 - 1985), who carried out his ministry with unflagging perseverance, absolute loyalty to the Church, wisdom and prudence, but also with the necessary determination. In the climate of protest and violence that characterized Italy in the seventies, he carried out an intense pastoral activity along the lines set down by Vatican II, while at the same time constantly striving for unity. He founded the second "House of Chairty", the "Mensa della fraternità" or Poor People's Refectory, the Diocesan Charitas and the Mission of the Bolognese Church in Tanzania, which is still active.
Cardinal Poma resigned in 1983 because of his failing health: his successor, Msgr Enrico Manfredini (1922-1983) died only ten months after having been appointed to the Diocese. In his place Pope John Paul II nominated the current archbishop of Bologna, cardinal Giacomo Biffi (1928- ), formerly auxiliary-bishop of Milan.