As the Pope’s car approached, I could hear “Papa, Papa” in the midst of prayers, calls, “hello’s” and “look at me’s” in this modest crowd of 50,000 or 60,000 people. Being off-season, it was a light day and a quarter of the security stations were open to move the massive crowd through one gate into St. Peter’s Square. Until I saw the Pope for myself, I had wondered if the herding experience was worth it. Crammed into the crowd which was in a line about 50 wide for blocks before the Vatican gate, I was cringing at the jostling, the rain, and the ocean of humanity in which I was swimming.
Watching as the “Pope-mobile” approached, I noticed how slowly it moved and how carefully Pope Francis looked into the crowd. He was making eye contact with individuals. People were passing their baby’s to him. We spend thousands of dollars for concerts tickets and chase celebrities for autographs or press upon them wanting to be close. Why? This crowd of people was pressing to be close to a human manifestation of Holiness…”please touch my child that something Holy may come upon his life.”
Father Luke from Kansas City (who we somehow met in the crowd) asked, “Are you Catholic?” The man answered, “No, just curious.” Fascination. With Holiness? With celebrity? This is the twitch on the thread. The spark that calls and the power of such a place as St. Peter’s and Vatican City. The Pope-mobile drew close and, for second, my eyes locked with those of Pope Francis. “I see you.” It was a gift.
A few years ago, Sally and I were in Lourdes, France, where St. Bernadette experienced Our Lady of Lourdes in a series of apparitions that made the city a story famous for pilgrims from around the world holding for access to healing in the special spring waters. Looking at the people, the lines, and vendors, I felt like we had walked into a religious “Disney World.” I realize now that it was merely a state fair. The Vatican, its sheer scale, and the scope of the masses passing through it was unlike anything I have every experienced.
We met our guide, Daniele, outside of the Vatican Museum gates at opening. There was a modest line to get in – Daniele commented repeatedly on how light the crowds were and our good fortune. I cannot conceive of what high season would be like. We moved through the Vatican Museums at speed – 4 hours was only going to scratch the surface of a place that has been collecting precious artifacts for almost 2000 years. Most of the thousands and thousands of treasures are not even on display and range from Roman statues to modern paintings in addition to the Holy Relics.
Of course, there is a a certain irreverence in comparing it all to a carnival, however, that is part of the contradiction. The fascination with its Holiness is only matched by the fascination with its pomp, circumstance, and celebrity. Holding some of the most beautiful art and architecture in the world alongside some of the most precious Christian artifacts along with the seat of Head of the Roman Catholic Church creates a strange dynamic at the edge of the spiritual and the commercial. A mass production that is at once necessary and saddening.
The Vatican and its Treasures
The Vatican itself is the remnant of the Papal Kingdom that filled the spiritual and political gap in Italy and beyond for hundreds and hundreds of years and only settled into its current walled configuration after Italian unification in the 1800’s. It is an independent country, complete with its own government, embassies, etc. Three thousand people live in the Vatican and another 2000 Italians work there.
We spent two half days in the Vatican. One half day in the Papal audience and a half day with our guide Daniele. Standing in St. Peter’s Square and experience the awe and wonder of the crowd, including being within 6 feet of the Pope was a special and bewildering experience. That mixed emotion of bewilderment, something born of my own desire for the Holy and my repulsion at the mass of humanity that at times felt like I was caught in an anthill carved of marble, haunted me throughout our time in this amazing place.
Daniele did a great job of exposing art, history, and tradition. We got a little less of the regionalism we noticed with some of our other guides. Perhaps it is the sheer size of Rome and its cosmopolitan meets historic complexion or maybe it was Daniele’s more scientific, archaeological perspective, but his approach was much less personal – though he did shrug a bit when I referenced the “body stealing” of the different regions to recover their famous sons to entomb in their own cathedrals.
We moved through 2500 year old Roman sculpture and on into the real center pieces of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s ‘Rooms.” The Sistine Chapel is literally and figuratively a Holy Place, and wholly worthy of the awe and wonder it evokes. Michelangelo, who was a proud genius, oriented toward simplicity, did his greatest work under threat and with the prideful panache of a man who railed at the bit he some likely often felt in his mouth. The Last Judgment is striking story of Christ in a less sacrificial storyline, including breath taking artwork with incredible movement and colors, as well as the occasional jab at the irritating Cardinal, one of which appears as a nefarious character wrapped in a snake. Genius has its own sense of humor.
The Ceiling itself is breathtaking and one must be careful to balance the need to look up at it with the need to maintain blood flow in the brain. Michelangelo never considered himself a painter and the Sistine Chapel was a bit of “trap’ assignment from certain figures but he rose to the occasion and gave the world something Divine and eternal. The room was full, wall-to-wall, with people trying to absorb all of it – there was no space not covered with something beautiful and no pictures I have ever seen can do it justice.
Raphael, who was a competitor to Michelangelo and totally opposite in personality, flashy, with a heart toward the ostentatious, was no less a genius and even more clever with pulling in the faces of his famous peers, the leaders paying for his commission, or those needing a bit of poking, into his paintings. Some of the most interesting elements of his work are the backstories of some of the faces that appear on the various characters: Plato, Michelangelo, Pythagoras, Archimedes, etc. Every painting tells a story and has a story. Every wall and ceiling is staggeringly beautiful.
The crowds and the guards kept us moving along. We took pictures as we tried to capture the moment but it was difficult to absorb or contemplate in any meaningful way. Zipping though the gallery leading to the Sistine Chapel, Daniele commented that it was too bad this gallery got such little attention because it had some lovely paintings: Dali, Matisse, Picasso, and numerous other recognizable names lined the halls. On all playing fields, there’s always someone or something bigger.
After three hours in the museums, we finally made it to the Basilica itself. A structure of staggering scale in a city of structures of staggering scale. I will say that the buildup of other impressive Basilicas did prepare me in some ways but St. Peter’s is in a class all its own. The original Basilica was built by Constantine in the 300’s and the current structure (which encompasses all of the other in space and reused materials) was designed by Michelangelo and Bernini and built beginning in 1506. The church measures 720 feet long, 490 feet wide, and 448 feet high. It holds the tombs of most of the Popes, four of which are saints – including the most recent, St. John Paul II.
We made our way around the Basilica, fighting for space to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, now encased in glass due to a crazy man who attached it a number of years ago with a hammer as he claimed to be Jesus Christ. Large guided groups made the day particularly challenging as the herded in and out of galleries, pushing, cutting-off, and consuming large spaces. i got comfortable carving paths through the flow of bodies to get us close enough to actually see some of the more popular works and shrines. Certain areas were available for reverent prayer, though the guards were persistently waving off and correcting those inclined to more irreverent behavior in these spaces. The journey was a test of patience and goodwill, a test that sorely taxed me for most of the day.
The Basilica is a wonder of the world. Michelangelo wanted something more modest, and in his mind, reverent. However, the quest for glory on a divine, and wildly Baroque, scale won the day. Every corner, every bit of floor, every column, every gilt design on the ceiling, is striking. The central colonnade is lined with the statues of Saints, each 25 feet tall, thought the expanse of the space makes them seem modest in comparison. The Baldacchino, the canopy over the altar which sits above St. Peter’s Tomb, is 66 feet tall, weighs over 100 tons, and was formed from bronze removed from the Pantheon. It is an exquisite piece of work by Bernini.
At the four corners of the central altar, under the dome, are statues with small (normal sizedI) doorways above that lead to Holy Relics: part of the spear that pierced Jesus, St. Andrew’s skull, Veronica’s Veil, and part of the Cross. We took an elevator to the top of the Basilica and were able to climb into the dome to look directly over the altar and central parts of the church. From there, we climbed the 331 steps to the Cupola which gave us a breathtaking view of all of Rome. Stunning.
As we moved about the Vatican over a couple of days, I found myself noticing the human infrastructure facilitating the crowds. At the Papal Audience, security seen and unseen was dramatic. Looking at the photo of Pope Francis making eye contact with me, also in the frame was a bodyguard making eye contact with me. However, his look was very different – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a human being looking at me with such a willingness to do harm. His eyes were almost predatory – they were looking for any signs, any queues from me, that might trigger him to action. I find the photo a bit chilling.
As the Pope-mobile made its way around, there was a tall, thin, man moving all about the pathway, whispering orders into a small walkie-talkie, the Chief of security. He wore all black, including a thigh-length trench coat, slim, professional, and deadly looking. The Swiss Guards moved at his very glance – they all seemed quite young.
The attendants at the gates were mostly impassive, the look of those enduring millions of people every year and every possible permutation of such a vast number of human interactions. Questions were generally answered in very short, curt responses, most of which were not about actually answering but more about moving you along. Moving, the goal was always moving humanity along.
At various places in the Museum Galleria and atop St. Peter’s, we got glimpses of the “backlot,” the inner domains of the Vatican itself. Hidden gardens, the Papal apartment (Pope Francis does not stay in the palace but in a 1000 square foot apartment), parking lots, a train depot, the Vatican government buildings, and all around, the wall that encircles the Vatican. Like all such places, the facade for visitors necessarily hides the machinery, while the machinery keeps the visitors moving along.
This is the End
Last night at Sora Lella, an old ristorante on Isola Tiberia, we talked of day, our time in Rome, the last 30 days in Italy, and going home. It was the kind of conversation that was tinged with sadness even as it danced with the hope and joy that always accompanies a return home. Today we will spend our last morning with Cecilia, on our last tour in Rome (Ancient Rome and the Colosseum), moving toward our last night in Italy. Though there is much to contemplate, much to revisit, and much to remember, there is far more to which we return. This is the end, and that is a good thing.