Rome, ‘the Eternal City’…. As a boy, I would immerse myself in books that chronicled stories of Emperors and gladiators alike, all with a role to play in reinforcing its legend. Hollywood would also provide me with countless reference points as films such as Ben-Hur and Gladiator played out on the TV screen before me. During a recent excursion to Rome, as I travelled through its streets, talked with its residents, sampled its culinary offerings and marvelled at its architecture, one thing became glaringly obvious…. if everything I had previously read and heard were to leave me with an adequate picture of what Rome was truly like, it had fallen short of the mark. That is to say, Rome has to be experienced for yourself.
In my all too brief stay, I climbed stairways ascending to the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian overlooking the Tiber river and the whole of Rome. I had the privilege of being shown around the grounds of Rome’s most famous amphitheatre, the Colosseum by an archaeologist formerly responsible for much of its excavation. It truly stands as an enduring witness to the world, of Rome’s pioneering legacy in architecture amidst the vivid backdrop of its dark history. One cannot help but feel a deep sense of stillness standing in the Sistine Chapel, your head adjusting to its assumed tilted position as you study Michelangelo’s fresco spanning the entirety of the ceiling. Words do little justice in describing how I first felt viewing the Pantheon, one of Rome’s oldest and most well preserved temples of the ancient world.
My fascination with this historic city did however leave me burdened with questions. Within the walls of the Vatican, I witnessed an unsettling syncretism of sorts, a blend of the ancient world and Roman Catholicism coexisting harmoniously alongside one another. There is undoubtedly a valid argument and case to be made that had the Papacy signed off on the removal and destruction of these priceless artefacts, the ancient civilization as we know it would be forever lost to us. I don’t know about you, but being an avid student of history and knowing Rome’s sphere of influence in shaping western thought, this isn’t something in all conscience I could ever advocate for. My journey into the heart of the Vatican brought me to the Octagonal Court, a collection of sculptures assembled by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and later expanded on by both Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799). Here I would discover statues of Apollo and in the great Round Hall be greeted by a colossal bronze statue of Heracles himself. On the surface, this provides no real cause for concern. After all, as any seasoned curator would tell you, many of these items were excavated in Rome and brought to the Vatican as a way of preserving Rome’s rich historical heritage, right? However, on the other end of the spectrum, viewing the genius on display in the frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael during Rome’s renaissance period seem to present a clear departure from the gods of old, with each brushstroke diverting us to a more biblical narrative. I am left wondering whether Rome creates a cloud of confusion in presenting a skewed portrait of the faith when the ‘Rome of the Caesars’ has pride of place alongside the ‘Rome of the Popes.’
On my travels, I met with a lady who regaled me with stories of her many pilgrimages, the most recent surrounding a trip to Medjugorje, a village on the outskirts of Croatia. Since 1981, this once sleepy village has awoken to the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims that descend on it annually, hoping to glimpse the reported ‘apparitions’ of the Virgin Mary. Although the Papacy have conducted investigations into the authenticity of these claims, the truth behind these religious rumblings remain shrouded in mystery but haven’t stopped the steady current of media speculation that flood its embankments. I however would not have to travel as far as Medjugorje as I was soon to discover the same devotion and worship of Mary could be found alive and well within the walls of Rome itself. Inside the Pantheon, you can find a whole basilica dedicated to and in honour of St Mary and the Martyrs. As a Christian, I have always been aware and been vocal in my concerns over the extra biblical vernacular Rome ascribes to Mary.
Article 9 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a whole paragraph dedicated to her, states:
“Mary’s role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it. This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death”; it is made manifest above all at the hour of his Passion”
After doing nothing less than inducting Mary into the Godhead, they continue down their slippery slope of poor hermeneutics:
“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians”
To see these doctrines, grow legs and take on a life of their own, not only in places like the Vatican but in the cafés, restaurants and street corners was disheartening to witness. As I would hate to be charged with making sweeping generalizations, I will not for a moment suggest that all the wonderful people I encountered, who I might add, made me feel welcome, all hold to the teachings espoused by Rome at large, but how long can the inhabitants of this city remain unscathed from an erroneous system of belief that has become entwined not only in their history and their great monuments but in their very way of life.