“Art undeniably is conductive to happiness.”

The Vatican City State or Holy See is the world’s smallest country. It’s located in the heart of Rome the Italian capitol. When planning your visit to this unique country within a city bring along a pair of good walking shoes. Vatican City, San Francisco and Seoul, South Korea aren’t cities to visit if you’re out of shape; all three are hilly. In warm countries were opportunities for outdoor exercise abounds keeping the fat off isn’t much of a problem. Here in Chicago it’s too cold in winters, at the time of this writing the temperature’s -16 below zero; too hot summers and too dangerous year round. Most Chicagoans work like automatons. They don’t call this ‘the city that works’ for nothing. We watch too much TV and eat like there’s no tomorrow. Chicago’s numerous world class restaurants make is hard to fight the fat during long winters. Not so with Italy. St. Ambrose once said ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do.’ Italians stay in shape though I did see my share of pot bellies.
The city of Rome is internationally known for its grand Catholic-Christian worship centers. Oddly enough where my wife and I stayed there wasn’t a church for miles the only one being St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest Christian house of worship but a hell of a hike from our hotel. We’re both up in years.
We trekked past a number of sights we read about in travel journals. Rome isn’t a clean city. Historic buildings are all littered with graffiti; bad graffiti unlike the colorful gang signs that regularly decorate garage doors, freight cars, warehouse walls and schools here in Chicago where graffiti has evolved into an art form. Italian graffitists are a disappointing lot.
I don’t speak Italian but I remember one instance when my wife and I were in search of someplace to eat when unbeknownst to me I blurted out a sentence in perfect Italian when I asked a passerby directions to a nice place to eat. Talk about the gift of tongues! We dined at a high end small family owned restaurant where they serve real Italian, great booze with a large array of cakes and pastries smothered in rum. The dinner was expensive but oh so delicious!
Upon our arrival at the mother church of Christendom it was like going through a typical TSA security check at O’Hare replete with long lines, uniformed security guards, full body scans and baggage inspectors before being admitted into the piazza St. Peter’s Square. A basilica is a designated church where a pope could set up shop in case of emergencies. St. Peter’s Basilica is as grand as travelogues/periodicals depict. Thanks to America’s Knights of Columbus the huge façade is new. Our people did a grand job refurbishing the grand old girl though the well worn black bricked square that could use a major touch-up. A few hundred waste receptacles stationed throughout the square might encourage tourists to ease up littering the Square with their used water bottles, candy wrappers and other discards so the place could at least look clean.
Once my honey and I got through Vatican security we made our way to the grand church. St. Peter’s is a treasure trove. Paintings, statues, bas relief’s, papal tombs, the High Altar, St. Peter’s statue with its well worn foot made smooth from 500 years of countless kisses of pilgrims. The Baptismal font, the many side altars, the Papal Altar, Confessionals and Holy Water founts hand crafted by some of the world’s premier artists/artisans are strategically situated throughout the massive structure.
Critics accuse the Vatican of hording the ‘gold’ instead of sharing the wealth with the world’s poor. What they don’t know is the Catholic Church feeds, clothes, educates and hospitalizes more people than any other sectarian/secular organization in the world. As for hoarding the gold, as a practicing artist, I can attest that nearly all of those great artists whose works decorate churches/museums were once dirt poor. When they were starting out the Church was the only group that supported them and appreciated their work. Point—I’m a ceramicist and portrait artist. I know firsthand the difficulties in making sales. A large portion of my ceramic works hangs in one of Chicago’s grandest churches and rectories! If it wasn’t for the Church believing in these Renaissance masters they would have died broke, unappreciated and forgotten.
Everything has a price tag. During the building of St. Peter’s the Church used dubious methods to finance construction; the sale of indulgences. Indulgences can’t be sold. No organization/individual can bequeath a spiritual entity for financial gain. In short time the once mighty Church of Rome was hobbled by the preachments of a little rotund German priest-professor. To this day Catholicism is still smarting from the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Age of Enlightenment two movements that continues to chip away at the mighty fortress of Roman Catholicism. Fundamentalist preachers snatch thousands yearly from the bosom of Rome. St. Peter’s is visual proof that art can be costly in terms of money and souls.
One fine Italian quality we experienced was that nobody need feel like a stranger in the Eternal City. Italians are a homey and accepting lot unlike other places we’ve visited examples being New York, Bangkok, Memphis and some ethnic neighborhoods here in Chicago. St. Peter’s has the feel of an ordinary parish church replete with Baptisms, private services, the usual round of Liturgies, Confessions and places for private prayer.
Death comes to us all. Seeing the final resting places of roughly 40% of Rome’s Supreme Pontiffs was a sobering experience. Seeing these Messengers of Faith united in death, their tombs dating from Christianity’s early days, gave me a feeling of Christian continuity. I was part of something much grander and larger than myself. For a complete visual listing of extant papal tombs go to; ‘List of extent papal tombs/Wikipedia…’
The focus for my Roman holiday was art. The Vatican museums are top heavy with art treasure too numerous to see in a single afternoon. Like the massive Louvre, its popular French cousin, a person could spend months meandering through its exhibits and never see it all.
Most people who come to the Vatican want to see its two main attractions the Pope and the Sistine Chapel. At the appointed time my wife and I along with a cast of thousands of mostly young people filled the Square. The pilgrims were chanting the pope’s first name in gleeful anticipation of the Papal appearance. People waved their national flags as we waited for His Holiness to lead us in his Noon day recitation of the Angelus prayer. At the precise hour Pope Benedict XVI made his appearance from the window of his high balcony amidst the noise of pilgrims gathered below. The pope waved and thanked us for being there. Then he mentioned each group by name and thanked them individually as cheers rose after each group was mentioned. After which he led Noon prayer, blessed us, waved then departed. The huge throng was polite, well behaved and friendly. Despite the multi-lingual quality of the crowd everybody appeared to have understood what each pilgrim was saying. I got into a conversation with a young man from Poland. Not only must a pope be a role model to billions, the man selected for the top job must be semi-fluent in many languages or at least have a working knowledge of them just to function. I can understand why ‘Papa Benedicto’ stepped down; being pope is too much responsibility for one person let alone one in his late 70’s. Modeling Pope Francis’ example people in high profile jobs must delegate authority or go mad. Former Russian Czar Nicolas II learned this the hard way as the sitting American president is still discovering. The Czar and his family paid with their lives.

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