You read about the warnings about how large the crowds will be when you enter places like the Vatican Museum or the Coliseum, but until you actually experience it, you have no idea how the mass of humanity will be. And yet, somewhat sadly I must report to our Catholic Exchange readers, that while it is difficult to find breathing room in places like the Sistine Chapel or in front of a Raphael fresco you will have no difficulty getting a front row seat to a daily Mass at St. Peter’s or the scores of other churches in Rome. People have come to see stuff, not to immerse themselves in the sacraments that are offered to them in places that were designed centuries ago to inspire the faith lives of those couldn’t understand a word being said to them during Mass.
Our pilgrimage is nearing an end, but the pattern that keeps repeating itself from Turin to Pisa to Lorenzana to the Vatican and Rome itself is this: Italy has wonderful, old, marvelously-decorated Churches that date back to the beginning of Christianity itself. These Catholic places attract millions of people every year who come to see the priceless works of art from frescoes to sculptures to paintings to bejeweled treasures that have been dug up from other non-Christian cultures and put on display. And yet when it comes time for the sacraments, the true priceless treasures of the Catholic faith, no one is lining up and pushing their way in to get a seat.
I asked our tour guide for St. Peter’s, Ben Danielson, a second year seminarian student from the North American Pontifical College in Rome has anyone added up the value of all the things contained at St. Peter’s? He replied, “You know Time Magazine did something on that years ago and basically determined that all the money in the world could not replace what is in here.”
And yet all these wonderful, beautiful treasures stay here on earth when all of us depart for the next life with our fellow saints in heaven. Yes, we are all called to be saints. We are all asked to be part of the Church Militant helping those who are in the Church Suffering to get to the Church Triumphant. And yet it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of militants out there these days. Maybe militant about who is first in line for the next museum entrance, but not so much about who is in line for confession – if there were lines for confession.
Instead we want to be comfortable. We want to be happy in this world and seem not at all concerned with the next world. Wouldn’t we live different lives if we really, truly believed that the treasure we should be building up is the one we can’t see? Well, Christians at one time certainly knew that, as our next stop reminded us.
Most people have heard of the Coliseum. Most are aware that early Catholics were martyred here. It was a gruesome place. Emperors, seeking the favor of their subjects, offered free tickets to 55,000 people to come watch everything from mock battles on water (when they flooded the Coliseum) to wild beasts from all over the world who would turn helpless victims into human hamburger. Then there were the poor gladiators fighting to the death with the crowd determining who lived and who died. Blood and carnage was what the crowd wanted to see, smell and watch.
Looking out over the Coliseum this day I reflected a bit on this after Aldo, our tour guide gave an excellent hour summary of what took place here. It seems that all great societies have a flaw of death in them. I give a presentation on Our Lady of Guadalupe and talk about how the Aztec Society, while advanced in many ways, was seriously flawed when they allowed human sacrifice from atop their pyramids on an almost incomprehensible scale. The Romans at the Coliseum were people just like we are today, capable of greatness, but at these “games” they would yell out that a wounded gladiator or Christian be hacked to death. And cheered all the more loudly the more death of fellow human beings they witnessed. The bloodier, uglier and more brutal the “games” were, so much the better.
The three girls and I reflected that we have a flaw in our society as well. We allow women to kill the most innocent among us through abortion. The crowd demands a woman the right to kill her own baby. Societies that do not correct these flaws are doomed to fall, just as the Aztecs did, just as the Romans did. Both were wealthy, both had empires that covered the known world at the time, and yet, in the end, it wasn’t enough because they could not protect human life. We should learn from the mistakes of the Romans and the Aztecs, or we will be in ruins one day.
More Stops Along the Way
After touring the famous Palatine Hill, site of Roman emperor palaces, arches, the Forum, and the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated, we wanted to see the place where St. Peter (and some say St. Paul) were held. It was closed, but we did get to at least pray outside its doors.
From there it was a ten-minute hike to St. John Lateran, the cathedral Church of Rome. (A lot of people think the cathedral of Rome is St. Peter’s, but it is not.) St. John Lateran is the oldest and ranks first amongst the four Papal Basilicas of Rome. I could go on and on about its beauty like the nearly 25 Churches we have visited across Italy during the last 7 days. We spent time going to confession and then Eucharistic Adoration before heading across the street to one of the most unique sites in all of Rome: The Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs.
These wooden steps are, according to our Church, the actual staircase that once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate. Jesus is said to have walked up and down these stairs several times on the day he died. St. Helena, the mother to the Roman Emperor Constantine (whose arch near the Coliseum we saw just an hour before) is said to have brought the stairs to Rome in the 4th century. In the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V placed them in the chapel where they are now. By papal decree, a partial indulgence is given to those who pray and kneel all the way to the top of the staircase.
Our final stop after two days is St. Paul’s Basilica. This church has the earthly remains of St Paul and if you check out the pictures you will see the chain believed to be used when St. Paul was a prisoner in Rome. There was an opportunity here to ask for special intentions for Masses said at St. Paul’s. I wrote down a couple including all the intentions of those reading and asking for prayers at Catholic Exchange.
We stopped by the North American Pontifical College to rendezvous with our friend Bob Shea and pick up some groceries. The girls, forever grateful for this opportunity, wanted to make Bob an authentic “Italian” dinner. We had learned a lot over the last few days and the girls put on quite a meal. Everything from artichokes to freshly grated cheese to a pasta-noodle dish that was out of this world! And of course nothing would be complete in Italy without a little Chianti and Geletto.
We are busy packing and getting ready for an early flight back to our home in Bismarck, North Dakota tomorrow. I intend to write a final wrap up after I get chance to interview my fellow pilgrims and see what they thought of traveling over the Italy to see the Shroud of Turin, Pisa, stay with a farm family and then spend four days in the Eternal City.
Until then, thanks for your prayers. And I will keep you in mine.
For photos of this final day of our pilgrimage click here.