The Sacrament of the Church: Reflections from a Roman Pilgrimage

The Sacrament of the Church: Reflections from a Roman Pilgrimage

Quo vadis, Domine?” These are the legendary words that Peter spoke to Jesus shortly before his martyrdom. According to the legend, Peter had chosen to flee the rampant Christian persecutions breaking out in Rome under Caesar Nero. As he was on his way, the Lord appeared to him in a vision, but the Lord wasn’t walking with Peter—he was walking away from him, toward Rome. It was then that Peter asked his famous question, “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter then obediently turned his face back toward Rome, aware of what the Lord was asking of him. His met his fate around AD 64 when he was crucified upside down in Nero’s circus. The blood of his fellow apostle, Paul, would also soon be shed at the hands of the same tyrant. Thus, Rome became the burial sites of Peter and Paul and home to the successors of Peter, securing it in the annals of history to be the epicenter of Christianity, the great Eternal City.

Immediately following the deaths of Peter and Paul, memorials were placed over their bones and marked off as holy sites where Christians could come to worship, venerate, and pray. Even today we can trace the ancient graffiti of early Christian pilgrims who etched their intentions into the stone wall that shelters the bones of Peter. This set the stage for what would soon evolve into the iconic Christian pilgrimage—a prayerful voyage to the Faith’s most beloved sites where travelers from all over the world could beg for the intercession of holy ones who had gone before them and ask the Lord for the grace and courage to live similarly.

These memorials began to multiply throughout the city. First underground, while Christianity remained under persecution, then eventually into the public sphere after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity. Those memorials ultimately developed into churches, affording the opportunity not only to honor the saint, but to join his or her memorial to the One memorial sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the liturgy. Like Abraham and his altar-building spree throughout ancient Mesopotamia, the early Christians went on a church building spree throughout Rome and beyond, to witness to the activity of God at work in the world and to the growing communion of saints.

All of this is important to note, not only for Christians, but for students of history in general. But what significance does Rome carry for pilgrims today? To what do the many corners and churches of Rome bear witness? Is Rome a place merely to be used as a looking glass into the past, or can it guide Christians into the future? Most pointedly, what does Rome have to do with encountering the living Jesus of Nazareth?

It was a journey of joy and faith to explore answers to these questions in person, and I am delighted to share my findings in what follows.

The Stones Cry Out

While I am no student of architecture, I am a lover of beauty—from grand halls to masterpiece paintings, or to landscapes that take away the breath. I have always been a student of beauty, because it witnesses to the One who is its source. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). While I have seen extraordinary things in this world, to consider that these pale in comparison to what is to come in beholding the face of God—Paul is right—is truly unfathomable. What I discovered in Rome, tucked away amidst cobblestone roads and busy plazas, were countless wellsprings of beauty.

I am a firm believer that the architecture of any given culture is one of the first and perhaps boldest witnesses to its deepest values. Consider the many iconic monuments, picturesque corners, art museums, and patisseries that line the streets of Paris. Parisian culture has always valued beauty. It’s no wonder that it has become the global hub for fashion and elegance. Or consider ancient Egypt in its quest for the divine: pyramids that pierce the sky, burial chambers that guided souls into the afterlife, massive sculptures that, even today, sing of their grasp for godliness.

Rome sings two songs at once, two distinct melodies dancing in and out of resonance and dissonance. On one hand, there lies the Roman Forum—the ruins of what was once the hub of the Empire: its mighty columns witnessed to social and political influence; its colosseums and circuses spoke of its dominance. In a word, secular Rome sings a melody of worldly power. On the other hand, though, a countermelody began to take shape from within those imperial walls. As colosseums and columns faded away, Christian cathedrals and basilicas rose in their stead. Their exteriors no longer bore the stamp of Caesar, or Pax Romana, but witnessed to a new ruler of the world: Christ the Savior and the peace he embodies.

Facade of St. John Lateran. Public domain.

Take, for example, the stunning facade of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. Its grand exterior columns recall power and dominance; but this power is no longer ascribed to Caesar. Instead, atop its grand entrance is a statue of the Lord Jesus: one hand clutching his conquered Cross, the other reaching out to the world before him. Beneath his feet lies the inscription: “Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year of his reign, dedicated this building to Christ the Savior, in honor of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist” (translated from Latin). Below the inscription hang two ancient bronze doors, over 2000 years old and nearly twenty-five feet high. They were once the very doors that opened to the Curia Iulius—the Roman Senate, built by Julius Caesar himself. Now they open to a four-hundred-foot-long cathedral nave, with exquisite statues of the Apostles lining each side, guiding one to the main altar of Christ.

Walking through those doors feels at once as though one has entered something completely other. From the ornate golden ceilings to the intricate mosaic floor patterns; from depictions of saints and angels everywhere, to the majestic baldacchino that hovers over the altar. In every corner you are led toward the realization that you are no longer on noisy cobblestone streets or in a place where worldly affairs hold sway. From the moment you cross its threshold, every fresco, statue, and altar speak not of this world, but of another heavenly one.

So it is with nearly every church, chapel, and basilica that line the streets of Rome. Upon entering each one, you are instantly taken up into another world. Each Church, therefore, could be said to function like a sacrament: a physical sign that communicates a spiritual reality. Like the water in Baptism that signifies the washing away of sin, or the chrism oil of Confirmation that signifies the anointing activity of the Spirit, so the Church itself signifies a deeper reality. The Church in the world exists as a witness in space and time to the interpenetrating reality of a spiritual realm from which Jesus Christ is constantly renewing his creation. If that is the nature and mission of the Church, then why should her churches not tell that very story?

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Paul and Silas were accused of having “turned the world upside down” in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6). Why? Because they preached that “there is another king, Jesus” (17:7). So also the Church began preaching the kingship of Christ throughout the Roman Empire—and in more ways than one. As with the example of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica, they used words, and did so with grace and conviction. But the Church also learned how to preach the same message without words—in stone and marble, as it did with the statue of Jesus atop the lofty facade of John Lateran. The same Paul in his letter to the Ephesians wrote of a Church that contained “riches of…glorious inheritance” (1:18). In fact, it is better to read its fuller context in the words of the Apostle himself:

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:15-23, emphasis added)

In the same letter, he also writes (noting again especially the italicized portions):

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christand to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Eph 3:8-12)

Note that, according to Paul himself, it is the mission of the Church to communicate the mystery and wisdom of God to the world. The Church, to Paul, is the bride and vessel through which the glories of Christ are found and disseminated, the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” The early Christians in Rome did not take this lightly. In fact, this understanding was so integrated into early Christian thought, that they found it influenced not only their preaching but also the construction and decoration of their places of worship.

On the other hand, a church constructed as a box of white walls runs across the grain of the vision that Ephesians paints of the Church. But when the invisible world is constantly made present before you, in both word and architecture, it becomes far easier to inhabit a sacramental worldview.

Overlooking the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi at nightfall. Taken by my wife.

Riches in Poverty: Francis of Assisi, Mirror of Christ

I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about one of the highlights of our pilgrimage, which was our weekend trip to Assisi. Its beauty—both exterior and interior—captivated our hearts (and its steep hills viciously mocked our calves). Assisi, too, spoke of Christ and his Church. It spoke of its richness and wonder, but in much softer tones than its imperial neighbor. The whole of Assisi inhabited the spirit and character of its most famous resident and patron, St. Francis, known to many as the ‘mirror of Christ’. While ‘riches’ might not be a term often associated with the mystical beggar, he left his mark on this world as perhaps the richest of us all.

Francis lived in the early thirteenth century. His love for Christ led him to a life of poverty, mysticism, and evangelism. His habit bore no significant coat or emblem; his dwelling had no golden ceiling or marble statues. In truth, he intentionally forsook every comfort this world could possibly offer him—all for love of Jesus.

One sentiment that has captured my thoughts since walking through the hometown of Francis is a teaching that he left to his Brother Leo on finding “perfect joy.” As it is documented, he said to his fellow friar:

“Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.” A little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”1

In this perplexing lesson, Brother Leo recorded many more examples of heroic and magnanimous acts which, according to Francis, would still fail to represent perfect joy. When finally provoked to explain what would, he replied:

“If, when we shall arrive at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, ‘What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall - then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy. And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ - and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.”

His answer haunts me, in ways both provocative and sweet. It is the answer of a man whose sole consolation in this world is the Cross of Christ. “[F]ar be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).

Eventually, a train would take us out of those beautiful hills and back into the busy streets of Rome, but the spirit of Francis latched onto mine in a way that I believe only time will clarify.

On Being a Roman Catholic Today: Some Parting Thoughts

Despite my tendency to see things through rose-colored glasses, and despite what I have labored to write, I am not ignorant of the declining state of the Church in Western Europe. I am not unaware that the vacationing tourist outnumbers the devoted disciple ten to one in any given church, or that many buildings throughout Europe that were once grand churches now function as bars or shopping centers. Is Rome, then, as we asked above, only a looking glass into the past? A remnant of a once vibrant Church? What does Rome have to do with encountering the living Jesus of Nazareth?

The ultimate witness of Rome is shortchanged if it is reduced to buildings, frescos, and sculptures (or pizza). When you take it all in for its real value—its churches, buildings, and saints, even its busy alleyways—the gospel of Rome is not found in one nor even in a collection of places. It is found in a person. The gospel of Rome is Jesus Christ. The saints on whose backs the Roman Church grew did not live and die for love of a city or an idea. They did so for love of a Person. It is only in light of this love that we can comprehend the crucifixion of Peter and the beheading of Paul; the brilliance of Leo and the service of Lawrence; the virginity of Agnes and the bravery of Helen; the poverty of Francis and the preaching of Dominic; the conversion of Newman and the bookshelves of Ratzinger. It is all of these together that combine to reveal the glories of Christ and his Church. You cannot have a Sistine Chapel without a Portiuncula (the small, humble chapel of St. Francis).

My local parish back home has no marble columns or two-thousand-year-old brass doors. In place of medieval frescos and renaissance paintings are stained-glass windows with a nineteen-seventies flare. The many churches outside of Rome may lack some of the ornate, objective beauty that a church like St. Peter’s Basilica showcases. The one thing that all these churches have in common, though, is the person of Jesus Christ.

It has been said that the Church of today is moving once again into an apostolic mode—a way of being in the world that more closely resembles what the first apostles experienced than the last fifteen hundred years have done. It is a time mostly devoid of Christian influence that for this very reason invites a fresh preaching of the gospel. When those first apostles carried that gospel to the end of the world, they did not have basilicas, cathedrals, or papal palaces; they utilized the tools around them to preach what they knew and loved—the gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation of mankind. They didn’t build a cathedral to set the world on fire, they preached a Person.

Only after the world was set on fire with the Christian gospel did they begin to build those grand sites that remain today. Like the apostles, evangelists today may find their architectural surroundings a bit lackluster. Before we set out to build our grand chiese (“churches”) in the world, perhaps we need to focus on the chiesa del cuore (“church of the heart”)—the inner-man that must always be transformed and renewed. Grand basilicas and cathedral halls will do embarrassingly little in the work of evangelization if they are filled only with those who are spiritually asleep. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). The sacramental vision of the Church must be something internally inhabited, cultivated, and lived in order for it to flow into the artistry of our worship spaces.

To be Roman Catholic, then, is to be passionately in love with a person, Jesus, and as a member of his Body, to build up his Church in the world. This ‘Church’ that we build is ultimately a heavenly one—stones and marble will eventually crumble and fade, but Christ and his Bride will endure forever.

It is my sincere hope to return to these beautiful pilgrimage sites. I am thankful for the many graces received on the trip: time away with my bride, a deepened appreciation for the history and beauty of the Church, and ultimately a clarified desire for personal holiness. I am eternally indebted to the patrons and friends who made this pilgrimage possible as well as to those who generously showered us with their advice and wisdom on how to make the best of it.

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25).

Ciao.

 
My wife Liz and I in a picturesque corner of Assisi.

Endnotes

  1. Brother Ugolino, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, VIII (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library). Accessed at https://ccel.org/ccel/ugolino/flowers/flowers.