Having six months to prepare for your first pilgrimage in a foreign land can be a huge blessing, but it can have its drawbacks, as well — the main one being somebody who is already predispositioned to research and organization can become a tad obsessed.
And so it was with me and Rome.
So I started making lists: of things to do and see and eat. But mostly, I made a list of churches. While I never was able to pin down the exact number of churches in Rome, it’s rumored to be in the neighborhood of 900. My list was probably only half of that.
Some of the must-see churches were obvious: The major basilicas or the ones with tremendous historical significance or those that housed incredible pieces of art or jaw-dropping relics.
But one Church, of course, stood above the rest.
The anticipation to step inside St. Peter’s Basilica became greater as our trip neared, but instead of making it the first or second (or third or …) church we saw while in Rome, it was no fewer than the …
Here is a list of churches I saw before stepping into the greatest church in Christendom: San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agnese in Agone, Sant’Andrea della Valle, Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs (the Pantheon), Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Scala Santa (not a church, but we’re counting it), St. John Lateran, San Clemente, St. Mary Major, Santa Prassede, Santa Maria della Concezione (Google it!), St. Cecilia, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Sant’Ignazio, San Lorenzo in Damaso.
And those are only the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
But on Monday, I finally stepped into the Church built on the site of St. Peter’s tomb. I was stunned by the enormity of it all. The tour, led by Professor Father John Wauck of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, was part of Day 2 of “The Church Up Close,” the conference for journalists covering the Church and hosted by the university.
Father Wauck guided the group — about 35 of us representing five continents — around the immense church, sharing his insight into the history of the basilica.
While finally getting to see St. Peter’s was the highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of my life), the other sessions explored into the inner workings of the Church.
We listened to Msgr. Lucio Ruiz, the secretary of the Secretariat of Communications, explain how the new discastery has been charged by Pope Francis to not just reform but “rethink” the way the Holy See gets its message to the people. Its aim over the coming years is to consolidate several entities (Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano, CTV and others) into one that will better serve the Body of Christ.
After lunch (which I ate from the snack shop atop St. Peter’s Basilica after taking the elevator and then 300-plus steps to the cupola that surrounds Michelangelo’s dome), the participants in the conference heard from Fathers Kevin Douglas and Justin Wachs, members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The two priests explained that the CDF has two major functions in the life of the Church: doctrine and discipline. The congregation, the priests explained, has a duty to defend the teachings of Christ and to make sure its ordained representatives uphold their mission faithfully.
The last conference of Day 2 centered on interfaith dialogue and specifically looked at Muslims and their relationship with the Christians as well as with other Muslims. Professor Father Samir Khalil Samir of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome gave the group and tremendous history as to why we are in the midst of “the worst situation in the Islamic world in the last [few] centuries.” Father Samir said the only thing Christians in the Western world can do to help end the extreme violence and persecution in the Middle East is to truly love the Muslims they come in contact with, but one of the components to that love has to be to share the truth of the Faith with them and to show them that hope can only be found in the love of Christ.
“We have to give them our best,” Father Samir said. “And our best includes the Gospels.”
Scott Warden is OSV's associate editor for content. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV