When an opportunity for me to visit Rome came up unexpectedly not long ago, I dropped everything, including blogging assignments. I will probably never have another crack at a trip to Italy with my husband. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I wanted to go.
I figured I might be able to write along the way. Surely there would be time. That’s not how it worked out. No one warned me of the overload of sights and impressions I’d be experiencing, and the deep contrasts I’d be witnessing. They packed an emotional punch. Perhaps the biggest contrast that hit my Catholic sensibilities was the one between churches as places of historical interest and churches as places of faith.
Rome is a city of church domes, not skyscrapers. Vatican City’s crown jewel, St. Peter’s Basilica, holds a commanding position. A walk through Rome reveals other churches that catch the eye: architectural marvels, places of art and beauty, accessible to believer and nonbeliever alike. One could be forgiven for valuing them simply as museums and artifacts of a certain period in history. That might be what brings someone through the doors for the first time.
Yet these aren’t mere artifacts of a lost time. They are places of worship. It’s odd how I felt that so strongly in St. Peter’s, thronged as it was with tourists. In the little side chapels within the nave, people were kneeling. Maybe one in twenty of the people in the vast church was there for prayer. Yet that five percent made the difference between a museum and a church. I asked where daily Mass was said, since obviously the “main” part of the church was occupied by tourists from all over the world. A guide pointed me to one of the side chapels, set apart only by a quiet attendant welcoming to the pews anyone who wanted to pray.
A few years ago, on another unexpected journey, I made a pilgrimage to St. Mark’s in Venice. The main doors, the big ones, were designated for tourists, of whom there were many. Who could visit the city without taking in that stunning edifice? For those wanting to pray, there was a smaller door off to the side: not to shunt anyone aside, but to guide pilgrims to a quiet area devoid of cameras and chatter.
In both Rome and Venice, I recognized those little side chapels as powerhouses, even if my Italy guidebook didn’t.
I came home to my little parish church, where the architecture is far more modest and draws no tourists. No one would ever confuse it with a museum. I came home to neighbors as appalled as I by the news of yet more abuse, more episcopal failures, more reminders that if my faith in God relies on anyone’s miter and staff then my faith is doomed to shatter.
Tough news to come home to after Rome, for sure. Yet in a way, my journey had set me up to face tough news. Rome was a challenging place for me. Beautiful and vibrant, yes. But around every corner and under every dome was that contrast and tension: museum, or house of worship? I think that as long as those side chapels are occupied by people at prayer, the tension resolves in favor of worship.
I think that these days, both in Rome and at home, prayer is not only worship of God but also an act of defiance against people who need to be defied: all those who would weaken others’ faith, break bruised reeds, betray trust. A dangerous attitude, that. Prayer without humility and love becomes the clanging cymbal of which St. Paul warned us. Yet abandoning prayer altogether leaves the field to the museum-goers. I’m not prepared to do that.
Rome and Vatican City were a revelation to me. Nothing I studied prepared me properly for all the food, sights, history, and the accompanying sensory overload. Yet quite against my will, elbowing its way into all my other memories is that sight of people praying off to the side in St. Peter’s. One in twenty, giving soul to the church, quietly pushing back against all that would render it a mere museum.