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On a voyage to Italy for the 1950 Holy Year celebrations, Pennsylvania priest John X. Halligan bunks with Joe Brewster, an affable conman who, unknown to John, has escaped from San Quentin. Joe, who was reared a Catholic, strikes up a friendship with John, but when the boat docks in Genoa, Joe steals his sleeping roommate's suitcase and disembarks in John's cassock to avoid waiting police. Joe's disguise fools them, as well as two priests who have come to meet John. The priests whisk Joe away to see the local sights, then place him aboard a bus filled with clerics bound for Rome. When John awakens, he must leave the boat in Joe's flashy clothes and is immediately arrested. At the police station, the commissioner assumes that John is Joe, until John recites the Preface to the Latin Mass, something only a priest could do. After being outfitted in new ecclesiastic clothing, John leaves for Rome with instructions to help the local police capture Joe. Meanwhile, Joe is befriended by Irishman Father McGinniss, who obtains a room for "Father John" in the Monastery of the Three Saints. Viewing the humble cells of the monks, Joe finds the quarters eerily reminiscent of San Quentin, but is content to have a hideout. When John arrives in Rome, he checks in with commissioner Aggiunto Bodulli, who speaks English peppered with Western idioms learned while a POW in Texas during the war. Bodulli wants John, who is the only person in Italy who can identify Joe, to help him, but is aware that John is reluctant to be a "stool pigeon." While the two men watch a procession, John is startled but says nothing when he sees Joe carrying a cross and helping a small, elderly priest carry his. Later, when Bodulli tells John that he will have a policeman pick him up the next day at the Monastery of the Three Saints, where he is registered, John realizes that Joe must be there. Unknown to John, Bodulli arranges for policeman Antonio Silesto to follow him. John arrives at the monastery as Joe and McGinniss are listening to a boys choir concert, and Joe is reminded of his days as a choirboy. When Joe is told that someone is waiting to see him, he thinks it is the police and is happy the visitor is John, to whom he apologizes. John wants to turn Joe in, but Joe convinces him to wait twenty-four hours. Later, as John walks through Rome, he realizes that Silesto is following him. Silesto apologizes for his ineptness, then invites John home to dinner to help him celebrate his wife's birthday. During their pleasant dinner, sirens are heard, and John learns that the Monastery of the Three Saints is on fire. He rushes to the monastery, leaving Silesto behind. John is relieved to find Joe, but is knocked out by a falling timber and is carried to safety by Joe. At the Trevi Fountain, a grateful John joins Joe for a carriage tour of Rome. At the Colosseum, Joe tells John that "the boys" were talking about a special pilgrimage to Rome's four major churches through which a penitent can have all of his sins forgiven. John tells Joe that forgiveness is only earned if the penitent is truly sorry, makes a confession and receives Holy Communion. Joe then asks John to hear his confession, and the two embark on the pilgrimage. The next morning, at the third church, St. Paul Outside the Walls, John gives a street urchin money for a relic he knows is phony, and Joe scolds him for putting the boy on the same path he was on as a child. While they are talking, Silesto, who has come to church with his wife, sees them and calls Bodulli. Although Joe and John have not seen Silesto, as they near Saint Peter's, they become worried when a pair of policemen stare at them, and run down an alley. Seeing a locked gate, Joe turns the handle and the pair find themselves in a monastery garden where an elderly monk uses a notepad to relate that they are all there for life, to pray and atone for the sins of others. Joe is puzzled by the air of love among these "lifers" and is shaken when the monk writes an apology for staring, saying that it is because the rusted side gate had not been opened in a hundred years. After Joe and John leave, Joe suggests that they split up so that John will not get in trouble, and the two take a taxi to the train station, where Joe slips away among a throng of priests. Bodulli and his men find John, and he unintentionally gives Joe's plans away by mentioning the names of the three churches they have just visited. Knowing that the fourth church on the pilgrimage is St. Peter's, Bodulli takes John with them to the Vatican. They arrive just after Joe has gone through the Holy Door, thus completing his pilgrimage. Joe does not resist his arrest, but soon escapes, disappointing John, who thinks that he must have been mistaken about Joe's true desire for repentance. Later, while the downhearted John is taking a walk, he again comes to the monastery gate and is surprised that it opens easily. Inside, he finds Joe tending the garden and angrily accuses him of using the kindly monks. Joe does not speak, but uses a notepad to tell John that he had been in a place with a past but no future and wants to spend the rest of his life in a place with a future but no past. The elderly monk then reassures John by writing that he knows everything about Joe and believes him to be truly penitent. Content, John gives Joe his most prized possession, his mother's rosary, and promises to work to get him a pardon in America and to visit him during the next Holy Year, in twenty-five years.