By JULIE DOWNS
It is hard not to be overwhelmed and moved by the faith while visiting Rome. I should know. I tried hard not to be.
I joined Bishop David B. Thompson, the Cathedral Choir and more than 180 others on a pilgrimage to this holy city. In the ensuing conflict between my generational “so what” cynicism and my faith, it was the latter, with its homefield advantage, that ultimately won.
It is only while you are physically in the city that you can be struck by the enormity and universality of the Catholic faith. It can be seen in the many nationalities represented at the papal Mass, their colors showing in flags that danced wildly atop the sea of 45,000 people, and in the small symbols of the faith everywhere: the image of the Holy Father adorning shop windows and the priests and many different orders of men and women religious, so commonplace on the streets.
And then there are the large symbols of the faith. I had seen in books the beautiful churches and works of art we saw. It really does not prepare you for viewing them in person. Despite my art history classes, listening to the individual stories of these great works was the first time I made the connection between their origin and the Catholic faith. What a tremendous benefactor of the arts the early Church was!
While viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a visitor from Columbus, Ohio, asked me whether I thought those who did not believe in Christ would be impressed with its beauty. The question caused me to contemplate Michelangelo’s inspiration. There would seem no way he could have created something so awe-inspiring without being divinely inspired himself. Freed from the confining pages of a book and standing before and above me in places of worship, I saw such works of art for the first time as how I believe they were intended. Not as objects simply to be studied; but as depictions of faith designed to inspire.
In such small revelations, I felt the inspiration of Rome, but it was still elusive. Standing below the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I was frustrated by the fact photographs were not allowed. In the great halls of St. Peter’s Basilica I was constantly distracted by the touring groups bustling in and out. And even at the papal Mass, I was aggravated by the crowd and the heat. Communion for 45,000 was a confusing scene, yet people from my group managed to get back to their seats and, much to my admiration, quietly fold their hands in prayer.
By trip’s end, I was beginning to seriously question my spirituality that I was not better able to focus my mind and my heart at these incredible opportunities to get better in touch with my faith. On the plane leaving Rome, as we began our ascent and lifted just above the clouds, three long formations bore an incredible resemblance to angels blowing trumpets in song. It may be an indication of my crumbling cynicism at that point that I saw them as a sign calling me to greater reflection on all I had seen and the many I had truly found God.
I saw God in the smiling face of the Holy Father, a glimpse of which I caught as he moved through the crowd in the popemobile at the general audience. Though he later sounded weak, he seemed energized by the contact with the crowd. I saw God in the snapshots the pilgrims took of each other on our last evening. together, preserving newfound friendships. I saw God in the beaming faces of choir and audience alike at the concert at St. Ignatius, Church and in the roaring round of applause that greeted each individual choir member as they stepped on the bus that night.
And I saw God simply in the care and concern among the members of our large and unwieldy group. As a young woman who met with some trepidation the prospect of making her first trip abroad alone, I realized that I was never really alone.
So ultimately I did come closer to my faith in Rome. I owe much to the Holy Father and the great blessed sights of Rome. But I owe just as much to the other pilgrims on the journey.