Pilgrimage, Part I: the early Church in Rome (and the Pope)

We’re taking this trip for a lot of reasons. One of them is to mark the story of our ancestors–both spiritual and biological. You can read more about the pilgrimage on David’s blog.

We began the first leg of this part of our journey in Rome. After seeing Pompeii and the Colosseum and contemplating the power and scope of the Roman Empire, we pivoted to the early Church, which emerged within it.

It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that Christianity was a deviant sect that stood in direct opposition to Rome’s authority. Seeing the Colosseum and recognizing the scope of this authority highlights the level of risk the early believers took to proclaim Jesus (i.e. not Caesar) as Lord.

Our first stop was Mamertine Prison where both Peter and Paul were held for advancing this proclamation:

In the cell where Paul probably wrote some of the letters that we now read in our New Testaments, including this from II Timothy:

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

The building on the left is the prison. The one to the right is a part of the Roman forum. These men knew Rome and its power.

Then we took a walk on the Appian Way, the highway that led into Rome. Paul would have walked here as he entered Rome.

We also took a fascinating tour of the catacombs (no photos allowed). I had no idea what an elaborate and enormous system the catacombs were–and still are. Only a small portion is open to visitors and there are plenty of areas that remain untouched. The Church might still have been a deviant sect, but it had some kind of resources. It certainly had numbers.

Next stop: the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls. St. Paul is believed to be buried here. The Basilica also houses a length of chain that, according to tradition, kept him in bondage.

We spent quite a bit of time here, exploring the huge space and examining the magnificant artwork. Deviant sect no more, the Christians who built this structure clearly had plenty of economic and cultural capital on their hands. The large cafe outside selling sandwiches, coffee, and gelato continues that tradition. Apparently American mega churches aren’t the only ones to have that idea.

Next, David read a mini-history lesson at the Milvian Bridge (or the modern-day equivalent of it). Here Constantine defeated his enemy in battle. He looked up into the sky, saw a cross and the words, “in this sign, conquer.” And he certainly did his part to transform Christianity from an anti-empire, pacifist, egalitarian sect into an agent of state and military might.

So that was our whirlwind historical tour of Rome.

We ended with the Vatican. We timed our visit for a Wednesday when the Pope makes a public appearance in St. Peter’s Square. If you look really, really closely at this next picture you can see him in his Pope-mobile, slowly making his way through the crowd to the front:

The Pope gave greetings in a number of languages, as well as a short address. There wasn’t an English translation for the address, but we definitely heard him mention “fake news,” and “superstitions” in a not-very-approving tone of voice.

I, of course, enjoyed watching the people, who showed up with lots of rituals and material culture to demonstrate, presumably, religious identity, devotion, and of course, curiosity.

I think the thing that stands out to me most from Rome is the contrast between what Christianity was and what it so quickly became. The displays of wealth, power, and religious opulence are everywhere. Christians, it seems, are tempted by the same spirit of Empire as was Rome.

If you didn’t know to look for them, one could so easily miss the other–more important–part of the story: the jail cells, the catacombs, the resistance against Empire.

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