There are a lot of reasons for a tourist or pilgrim to travel to Rome. It is named “the Eternal City” because it has been around so long. The archaeological sites indicate at least 3000 years of continuous existence in the hills along the banks of the Tiber River. 2000 years ago, Rome was hitting its stride having conquered much of the known world, at least most of it within walking distance. Riches poured in, monuments were built and palaces, roads, aqueducts, baths and the Pantheon. Several hundred years later it became the seat of the Roman Catholic faith which is professed by over 1 billion people on the planet. It is a “must see” when in Italy, and so we arrived. We only scheduled two nights in the city, because we are not big fans of cities regardless of their history. There is a hustle and bustle, the noise and the crowds, and Rome is more “city-like” than most in this regard. People are in a hurry, the pollution has everyone on edge and we long for the countryside the moment we arrive. Nevertheless, while we were there, we had to make the most of it. Of course, we saw the Colosseum;
other signs of the Roman Empire such as the palaces above Circus Maximus where they held chariot races;
more modern monuments to celebrate the unification of Italy in 1870 under Garibaldi, which also happens to be the site of Mussolini’s famous speeches during the fascist period leading up to WWII;
and castles along the Tiber that served dozens of different purposes over the years such as the Castle de San Angelo;
but mostly we came to see the churches, in particular St Peter’s Basilica which is the anchor of the independent nation-state of Vatican City, or the Holy See as it is also known.
Words utterly fail to describe the beauty and majesty one encounters inside this largest Basilica in the world.
It is enormous, gilded with gold everywhere you look, and utterly defiant as a subject of photography. Where do you point your camera to capture this space? Of course, you can focus on the famous works of art inside such as the Pieta by Michelangelo,
or any number of other statues inside, there are literally hundreds of them from every era of the 2000 year history of the church. This is what centralization in a religious context gets you. Moving beyond the statues, every chapel of the church (and there are dozens of them), are adorned with frescoes in their domes depicting any number of scenes from the Bible or theological speculation about the end times and the time beyond. Here is just one example to illustrate the point.
It is so far up to the ceiling that I have to zoom in the camera to begin to pick up details! This is not a common problem in buildings usually, but this is the Vatican. It is the final resting place of countless popes and saints beginning with the first pope, St. Peter and including the latest pope to die, John Paul II (now a saint himself). The statue of St. Peter near the main altar has been a site of pilgrimage for so long that they have literally rubbed his toes off with all the touching by hundreds of years of pilgrims passing by wishing to gain his blessing by a touch. You might recall an earlier blog post in which I was rubbing the toe of David Hume in Edinburgh, such practice pales in comparison to this. Peter is now generally roped off to avoid being completely “rubbed out.”
My favorite statue is in the background in this last picture, it is St. Helen and reminds me of my mother who was named after her.
The Vatican has been a site of pilgrimage for well over a thousand years, one of the four great pilgrimage sites of Medieval Europe. It is a particularly significant site of pilgrimage for myself as I have been a practicing Roman Catholic all of my life. It is part of my very identity, and this is ground zero for the faith. I came to Rome specifically to come to the Vatican and to share it with Paula and Erin who have the same Catholic identity without the connection to place (having never been here in person). We made it here at night.
It was all lit up and a magical place getting ready for Sunday Mass with Pope Francis the next day. But this was a special mass, for at this mass, the church (under the leadership of the pope) would canonize seven new saints. For my non-catholic readers who may be unfamiliar with the canonization, it is a formal process by which the Catholic church recognizes members of the faith who have died by officially declaring them to be in heaven as a saint. This is done because before they died, they led such exemplary lives of faith that they are held up as examples to the living. When Catholics pray to saints, they are not praying to other gods, they are calling upon the saints to help them by remembering the example of the saint so that it might shed light on their current concerns and lives. There is much deeper theology than this, but it would be hard to work out in a blog post (a bit like the trivializing process of proposing marriage through a text or tweet). Suffice as to say, it is a BIG BIG deal to canonize someone (my friend likened it to the Super Bowl of religious celebrations), and we walked into Rome on the eve of such an occasion. I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of being in Rome for this event that all I could do was sit and reflect on how lucky we were to be a part of it.
We certainly weren’t alone, people came from all over the world to be a part of the celebration the next day. They lined up to get a chance to get into the square (the mass was moved outside into St. Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica because it holds so many more people) and until we passed through the gates, I didn’t know if we would even be able to get in.
When the sun rose we were thousands deep in line waiting for a chance to get in. There was a real sense of solidarity and it strikes you how global the church really is (The name catholic means universal).
Nuns and priests and faithful as far as the eye could see. There was an exceptionally large group of people from El Salvador (mostly wearing blue hats or waving the blue and white Salvadoran flag in this photo). They came to witness the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a fellow Salvadoran who was murdered as he said mass by a right-wing death squad in March , 1980. A week later 42 more Salvadorans were shot by snipers as they gathered for his funeral. This sparked a 12 year civil war, the legacy of that violence El Salvador is still struggling with decades later. Romero was shot because he spoke out against violence and the death squads and stood on the side of the poor in El Salvador. He has always been a personal hero of mine, so the chance to honor his memory in this way, in solidarity with Salvadorans and other poor across Latin America could not be missed. His story, and their faith and sacrifice to spend what little they had to be here on this day will forever inspire me in my own efforts in service for social justice. He is the first Salvadoran to be declared a saint, and he will quickly become an example to a continent of faithful to work on behalf of justice and peace.
His banner hung, along with the other six to be canonized, as a backdrop over the altar.
Another one of the newly canonized was the pope when I was growing up in Catholic grade school, Paul VI. This probably wasn’t the reason he was canonized, however, it added to the personal significance of the moment for me.
We spent the mass in the shadow of one of the massive fountains in the square. As I looked up I realized it had actually been dedicated to Paul VI. The sound of the water acted as a tether for me to natural places in the midst of this paved and built environment; and a reminder that no matter how much we as humans create institutions and buildings and monuments, it is always founded on the base elements of earth and water, air and fire.
The reason that the canonization took place on this particular Sunday was because all the bishops of the Catholic Church from all over the world had been gathering in Rome for a Synod (special meeting) to address the crisis in the Church caused as a result of years of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up of these crimes by those in power. They had other items on the agenda as well, but none more significant for the credibility of the Church in the modern age, perhaps. The Church, like every other human institution is made up of deeply flawed individuals and exemplary ones. The presence of all the bishops (and their reason for being “in-town”) at this celebration of these great lives was a perfect blend of these two great forces that push and pull at all of us.
In that moment I was reminded that we are all flawed in our own ways, and capable of greatness as well. This, and the solidarity with the humanity that gathered from all over the globe, are perhaps the greatest “takeaways” I had from this once in a lifetime event we were so very fortunate to bear witness to and participate in.
I am not always the biggest fan of selfies, but in this moment I eagerly agreed to mark our presence in this time and in this place and at this gathering with my two fellow travelers who have now had to endure my highs and lows without rest for the last 6 weeks. I am honored to travel by their side across all these landscapes.
Later in the day, we returned to the Basilica when we could go inside, but it also gave us a chance to look out on the square as the massive cleanup was underway for such an event. An odd time perhaps, but all I could hear in my head was Jackson Browne’s tribute to the road crew and the crowd that makes these events possible, “Load Out/Stay”. For many of my readers, I hope the song starts to creep into your minds as well as you view this last image; for the rest, there is always YouTube to access odd 1970s cultural references for which I have become famous in my lectures.