Being somewhere foreign often makes you reflect on where you come from yourself.
I come from the twentieth century, where Church and State are oil and water, and faith is a deeply individual and personal issue.
I come from North America, where churches are functional to the point of shunning anything too aesthetically pleasing. (How often is the phrase ‘church basement’ used to imply unappealing interior decor?)
I come from the Anabaptist tradition, which is opposed to anything connected to war, empire, and nationalism.
As such, stepping into the Vatican felt like stepping into the belly of the beast. My head was a swirl of amazement, skepticism, evaluation, and re-evaluation. So without further ado, let’s start with the tragic and work our way to the beautiful.
I don’t know if there is a treasure trove on Earth as full and rich as the Vatican museum. Artifacts from around the world, from 2500 years of history, are displayed in every nook and cranny. For many centuries, new buildings were commissioned every few decades to house the newly accrued treasures (and we thought Canada’s spending scandals were bad! At least our senators aren’t claiming any divine appointment!).
I know that frustration against this hypocrisy is easy to find, so I won’t beat a dead horse, but what truly broke my heart was this:
The power of the cross destroying the riches of the Earth. Yet those riches are still on display here, in what much of the world perceives to be God’s capital city. This gap in thinking is by no means restricted to the Papacy, and is something that anyone claiming any form of spirituality must be keenly aware of!
It’s also worth noting how the museum completely omits any of the darker points of the Church’s history. How much respect could the Church (or anyone, for that matter!) gain simply by taking responsibility for past actions. This is something we are starting to grasp as Canada deals with its colonial history, and hopefully this movement will only continue to grow.
On a less critical note, I found my reaction to the paintings change as we moved through the museum. At first even the pictures of the Nativity seemed foreign, as if I had no personal connection with them. As they go on, however, a familiar story starts to emerge. While many of the paintings are heavily influenced by history, politics, and superstitions, Christ’s love for humanity is never doubted. Misunderstood, yes. Ignored, yes. But whenever He reappears in the story, it is with compassion for people living in a broken world.
Finally, regardless of a twisted history of corruption and biased interpretation, individual conviction is still expressed. The wall of the Sistine Chapel exemplifies this best. The man holding a suit of lifeless skin is St. Bartholomew, the martyr believed to have been flogged beyond recognition. Obviously he has shed his old, demolished skin in a dramatic display of new life, but the dead face was painted by Michelangelo as his own self-portrait. The honesty of this man, to portray himself in such a gruesome way, was to me the most powerful display of individual conviction amidst centuries of institutionalized corruption.
We also had the opportunity to be part of the 60,000+ spectators that listened to Pope Francis’ blessing. He has certainly proven to be, like Michelangelo, an individual who is sincere in his own personal faith, and my prayer is that he would continue to influence other individuals to do the same.
Being in the Vatican may have been the most out-of-place I’ve ever felt (and this is coming from someone who walked into a Messianic Jewish commune in the middle of a minha without realizing it was Yom Kippur!), but the pitfalls of the Catholic Church are no different than the pitfalls of which we all must be conscious. And the convictions, when everything political is stripped away, are the same as well.