Thoughts after Rome

by Ellen Kolb | August 22nd, 2018

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Thoughts after Rome

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.

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.

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