Spirit of Italy: Rome – Oct. 9, 2007
Fifty members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, led by Bishop Beverly Shamana, engaged in Spirit of Italy 2007 – an inaugural event for the Conference as tour members visited 8-13 locales “to be stirred by God’s heart of creativity while building and deepening relationships as the Body of Christ,” in the words of the Bishop. Tour member experienced the art and architecture inspired by the Christian faith of Italy’s world famous artists, including Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Among those taking part in this “spiritual journey of a lifetime” were Bruce Pettit, a member of the Conference Communications Commission, and Chuck Myer, who served as editor of the Connection. They agreed to file a series of stories about their experiences along the way.
In this entry, we arrive at Rome.
By Bruce Pettit
Early Roman Christians, persecuted by the Romans in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, found catacombs, or caves, in which to worship in the way God called them. They hoped they would not be discovered, but the emperor’s soldiers found them. Thousands of Christians were slaughtered in their places of worship.
On the seventh day of our California-Nevada tour of Italy with Bishop Shamana, we visited the Catacombe di San Calixto to absorb something of that early Christian experience. More than 300,000 people are buried in that catacomb alone. As we went down in the depths, one of us called it “creepy” as we passed a room in which nine Popes are buried. At our greatest depth, the Bishop called the 51 of us into a tiny, cold, stone room to “breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out thanksgiving for this experience...We give thanks for these people of such early faith,” she prayed to the Divine, “in this place where their bodies once rested...Guide us now by your spirit as we go in faith – to receive new learning, to have our own faith re-inspired. And we remember we too were once dust.”
Our new learnings of the day were in the Basilica di S. Paolo (St. Paul) and the Vatican. A basilica is a church, but one which a Pope has anointed with special importance. St. Paul’s Basilica has a statue of Paul adorning the courtyard. According to tradition, he was beheaded, as “befitted” a Roman citizen. The statue has him holding a sword, his instrument of execution. Also, according to tradition, his body was later found by Romans after Christianity became the state religion under Emperor Constantine, and it was dignified by burial beneath this church, with many other Christians buried around him.
The Vatican is located near the site where Peter is alleged to have been crucified. The basilica at the Vatican is St. Peter’s, of course, honoring the one who was the first Pope. Here, according to tradition, his body is buried also, 30 feet down among other Popes. Here at St. Peter’s is Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta – Mary holding Christ in the moments after his death.
Then there’s the Sistine Chapel. Leslie Martin of Ely UMC (in Nevada) made this trip precisely to see it. As much as she was moved by the masterpieces at St. Peter’s, she had an unexpected reaction: “I found the opulence of the art oppressive. The wealth spent on it was at the detriment of the masses. It kept them poor. Yes, the art may have helped the poor understand the Christian story, since they couldn’t read, but why not teach them to read? Wouldn't that have been a better thing to do?”
Doug Warnock of Crescent City UMC (in California) disagreed that the art oppressed the poor. “The masses tithed. They wanted this art work. They felt it gave tribute to God in the best way they knew how.”
Bishop Shamana ended this seventh day with these words to her fellow travelers: “My hope is that you will see how God not only worked through our forbearers, but also how God can work through you. There is a myriad of ways God lives through you. I hope we don’t regard creative art as so big that, by comparison, there is nothing we can do. Let us be inspired, not dwarfed, by it.”