The Pope and Memories of the Vatican

For the purposes of this blog, I was thinking that I should just ignore the resignation of the Pope. The Pope isn’t an authority figure for me, although he is for some in my family, and I can’t say I’m much of a fan. So, I thought I should just ignore the whole business with Pope Benedict’s resignation and the clamor surrounding who will be next.

But, it’s just so hard to escape. It’s all over the television and the radio.

For me, all of the broadcasts from Rome, bring up my own memories of a visit to Rome, and the Vatican, in the fall of 2008. Although most my memories of Rome are good ones, my memories of my visit to the Vatican are not as positive. I especially remember when my family and I visited St. Peter’s. We had first climbed to the top of St. Peter’s and had then climbed all the way down, to be deposited into the enormous sanctuary—along with masses of other people.

And, though we were in one of Christianity’s most sacred of places, with countless other Christians, most of whom were in tour groups, my family and I were subjected to some of the worst pushing and shoving of our whole two and a half month trip through Europe. Pilgrims from all over the world were in the same place, and they needed to stay in their group. They needed to keep within eyeshot of whatever umbrella or other waving object that their group leader was carrying—and they needed to follow that object no matter the cost. Even if it meant trampling children.

Occasionally, we would spot a pilgrim overcome with emotion, stuffed into some corner to escape the constantly moving river of people. It seemed clear enough that some people had waited a very long time to visit St. Peter’s, had perhaps saved their pennies to afford such a trip, and the experience of being in that sanctuary was emotionally overpowering. They wept in corners or in other out of the way places (which were hard to find), to keep from being overrun by the crowds of tourists, many of whom shared their faith, but acted like the most obnoxious, self-possessed, tourists.

We had with us a kid-oriented tour book, to help us, and our kids (who were 12 and 9 at the time) understand what we were seeing in the magnificently enormous sanctuary. But, it was close to impossible to read any part of that book as we made our way through the sanctuary. We quickly gave up and just kept moving at the pace of the masses.

I must admit that there was a moment in this experience (several moments, actually) that I was thankful to be a Protestant, to not have an emotional attachment to the basilica, with its bodies of former popes and relics of saints, and to be thankful that Martin Luther protested the selling of indulgences to finance it. It’s not that Protestants are without their own issues, but the display of obnoxious tourists and pilgrims at the Vatican was more than disappointing, even more so because in the midst of all that pushing and shoving, I don’t ever remember hearing and “excuse me” or “mi scusi” or “permesso.” Somehow in their quest to stay as close to possible to their tour guide, while also seeing as much as possible, those tourists ended up denying the existence of those around them—even in the place that supposedly stood in glorious recognition of the love of God.

I’ll take my little sanctuary, with my little struggling congregation, any day—where there is no pushing and shoving and where people are not ignored and where those wonderful, holy moments are allowed to happen not just in the corners, but right in the middle of everything, and where the nearness of God seems closer, unhindered by the sheer enormity of a structure that seems to endeavor to make human beings appear and feel very small and insignificant.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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