I love Rome. I love the art and the architecture, the paintings on the walls and the buildings that hold the walls. The atmosphere in St Peter’s and the John Lateran cathedral or the buzz of life in the Piazza Navona on a Saturday afternoon is something else.
Then there is that other great vantage point, the top of the dome of St Peter’s, hundreds of feet above the city streets and looking over the skyline of this wonderful place. The dome of St Peter’s was designed principally by Michelangelo, a multifaceted genius of the 16th century, and stands 452 feet above the ground at its highest point.
When you are 450 feet above the ground you get a great view of a city!
It is wonderful how you come to appreciate a city. I had been to Rome several times and really liked it but never saw the significance of the city until I happened to go on a visit to mainland China.
I was standing in the casino of the Venetian Hotel in Macau, which some claim is the biggest hotel in the world, watching all these people playing a hundred different games of chance and the thought struck me: “People build temples to their gods.”
Here in this gambling centre of the East, where money and power is god, I realized why Rome is so beautiful, because people build temples to their gods.
Rome is the ultimate in the Christian world’s efforts to build a temple suitable for God. Generation upon generation of Christians have built on bit by bit to make this a place of honour and glory to God.
When you begin to see Rome in this light all the nonsense about the riches of the Catholic Church fade into insignificance.
A piece of art drawn into cement is worthless unless the person buys the wall and leaves it where it is. Where could you move the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel too?
I bought one of those 16 euro week long bus passes and am circling the city like a Japanese tourist. I am having a ball and seeing new things that I have never seen before. It is great.
From I arrived here, I have heard nothing of the news in Ireland. The place could have sunk under the sea and no one has bothered to tell me. This is a lesson in humility, no one in Casa Bonus Pastor, the Vatican owned hotel right beside the wall of St Peter’s, in which I am staying, has passed any comment about Ireland or for that matter the UK.
Sitting here in the bar in the evening after dinner, tired after a day’s traipsing around the Forum and Coliseum, there is little talk of Northern Ireland and her politics. We are not as important as we think ourselves to be. Perhaps we should send out those leaders of ours who think that Northern Ireland is the centre of the universe and tell them that that notion went out years ago.
The idea that came to me in Macau, that people build temples to their god’s need’s a bit more explaining.
There were at least seven major architects involved, including two of the greatest artists in the history of the world, Michelangelo and Bernini. What was planned to be built in 1506 was nothing like the finished article or what we see today.
This was the time of the great ruling families, the Borgia’s and the de Medici families. Julius II tore down the old St Peter’s, which had fallen into disrepair, and commissioned the new. Then as the popes of the great families came along these rich people wanted to show their power and influence and decided to change bits of this and that to show their influence and power.
St Peter’s is as much about family pride as it is about the glory of God. Pride is always the bug bearer in these projects; many times the building is more about ego than anything else.
Have you seen the plans for the new Apple offices in Cupertino in California?
It is a huge circular building, something like a wheel, half a mile wide and open in the middle, which has been nicknamed “The Apple Spaceship” because when it is finished it shall look something like a UFO.
Walk down the streets of any major city, say Hong Kong or New York and look at the sky scrapers. What do we build our temples to today?
Coca-Cola, (money) News Corporation, (power) HSBC (money or greed) are among the buildings you shall see.
When I was standing in the Venetian Hotel in Macau, surrounded by opulence and decadence, money, power and sex were the order of the day. Every age has its gods: Apple’s new spaceship offices are a testament to today’s premier god, Science.
Our society has intentionally put God on the sidelines and replaced it by the god of science. Science shall overcome and explain everything; it will do away with disease, death and finally prove that there is no God at all but only a myriad of little gods caused by humanity’s need to worship something.
What happened? Greed took over, the rich got richer and all checks on greed were stopped because the market would solve everything: and look where we are today. Half of us own houses we can’t afford and three quarters of us own houses we don’t need.
But the god of the market, in the form of greed and ‘showing off’ demanded we all buy houses. If we didn’t buy ever bigger houses we were not part of the market.
Before that we had the sixties, the age of free love. If only we all threw off our inhibitions and clothes, everything would be fine. It too finished a mess and nowadays we are paying the price of the diminution of marriage in the form of divorce and lack of commitment. But we are wise now, we don’t need God.
The big god today is secularism, which says that man is god and we have no need for any god in the sky or anywhere else. This god of secularism is intolerant of Christians, especially Catholics, who dare to say that life is sacred and that people don’t have the right to kill their young and dispose of the elderly.
‘This is my life, my body, and it is my right to do with it as I want. I will decide when I live, if I have children and I will decide when I die. No one outside of me has any rights over me.’
That is the mantra of the secularist and it is very alluring because it gives a great feeling of power and what does a person want if not power.
Can you imagine being married to someone like that; someone who says, “I will go out now and I shall return when I feel like it, be that tonight, tomorrow or next week.”
Believe me there are such people and they can see nothing wrong with their thinking, they are so caught up in the god of ‘Me’ which is really what secularism is.
So here I sit typing on a computer in the Casa Bonus Pastor, paying 2 euro an hour for the pleasure of writing this to you and I ask myself what is Rome really about?
I suppose at the bottom line, Rome is a bit like Ardboe Cross or the list of Irish saints that we have in our church. Let me explain.
The saints and the shrines of Ireland let us know that we are part of a long Christian heritage.
It is the same in Rome, only slightly different. In Rome you see all the different nations of the world represented; here you come to understand the phrase, ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.’
In the art and architecture of Rome is reflected the struggle of humanity with good and evil, the struggle to make sense of a world that makes no sense without God and to delve into the deeper meanings of the mystery of life.
To top it all there is the Pieta; the magnificent statue of Our Lord lying across the knees of Our Lady when he is taken down from the cross. It is on the right hand side just as you go through the main doors of St Peters.
Michelangelo, the same man who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and designed the dome of St Peters, was the sculptor. He said that when he saw the block of marble in the hills of Tuscany, he could see the Pieta inside waiting for someone to carve it out.
In Rome the Christian symbols are everywhere. They bring us back to God as the centre of the universe and they steep us in the faith to which we belong. I love it here. Hopefully on Wednesday I shall go to the papal audience and see the new Pope who is enthralling the world. There is something about a man of poverty that touches the world.
And for all its pomp and circumstance, there is a spirit of poverty in all the art of Rome, a poverty that says we are human, weak and feeble and that without God we are nothing.
The secular world has nothing to offer in comparison to Rome; the decade of free love is gone, Thatcher’s market lies broke and disgraced, science will be shown to be a false god.
Ardboe Cross reminds me that I am Irish, Catholic and that the faith of our father’s has been here for a millennium and a half.
Rome reminds me that I am part of the Universal Catholic Church, a part of humanity that needs God and which must always look to him for real hope and to find the true meaning of life.
It also reminds me, as I sit here tired and sore, that my three score years and ten are fast running out.
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