Take Me to Church: Three Audacious Atheists Visit the Vatican

I struggled for months with whether or not to visit the Vatican. I am, after all, a pastor’s daughter-turned-atheist, so being inside the Mothership of Catholicism doesn’t exactly sound like my jam. But the home of the Holy See houses the largest privately owned collection of art in the entire freaking world, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Church has also, in large part, shaped the path of the western world for more than 1500 years. Less so now than, say, 400 years ago, thank God (pun intended), but it’s impossible to separate Christian history from European history–which is totally my jam. However, the Vatican amassed their enormous collection of priceless art through centuries of widespread greed, corruption, plunder and slaughter, and they ran (run?) the largest pedophile syndicate in all of documented history, so. . . yeah. I struggled.

In the end I decided that I’d be contributing to the preservation of the art and history, not the Ring of Rapists, and our one-time $20 donation wouldn’t go far in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bestie ventured into the inner sanctum of et Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti (Amen).

Now, about that history. . .

Notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, in the 1st Century CE, began building a massive circus (think chariots, not clowns). However, Caligula was a super shitty emperor (rumor has it also a sadistic, incestuous, nymphomaniac), so his own men murdered him after he’d reigned for a mere 4 years, leaving his circus unfinished. Enter Nero, the villain of early Christianity who, upon completing Caligula’s circus, promptly took all the credit and named it the Circus of Nero.

In CE 64 about a third of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. As usual, people wanted someone to blame, so Nero gave them one: adherents of a strange new cult who worshiped only one god, and called themselves Christians. Given the absence of modern investigative and forensic tools to reveal how, or at whose hands, the fire actually started, scapegoating the folks his subjects were already suspicious of must’ve felt like a no-brainer to a ruler who just wanted to restore order to a city teetering on anarchy. To placate the throngs of angry Romans, Nero’s soldiers started targeting and executing Christians (by crucifixion, as they’re infamous for doing), and the primary spot used for the executions was–that’s right–the Circus of Nero.

The bodies of the alleged arsonists were laid to rest in a cemetery right next to the Circus, including that of the most famous of Nero’s victims, the man credited with founding The Church, Peter the Apostle. St Peter’s Basilica is supposedy built over his grave, and the sprawling complex of palaces, gardens, offices, chapels, residences and museums has been built up around it over the ensuing centuries to give us what is now the independent city-state called The Vatican.

There’s one piece of the original circus left, and that’s the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square. Not a Christian relic at all, but a pagan one, Caligula looted the obelisk from Egypt way back in the early 1st Century CE. I can’t even tell you how hilarious I found it to be standing in the epicenter of the Christian world, neighborhood of the Pope, burial place of a dude who purportedly walked with Jesus Christ himself, and staring at looted, pagan booty. See, guys? History is fun!

More than the paintings and sculptures, or artifacts and relics, the rooms themselves were incredible, especially the ceilings. The Sistine Chapel doesn’t have the only magnificent ceiling inside the Vatican. Others are just as spectacular, and many are covered in gold. So. Much. Gold. Despite their beauty, I kept wondering, “Y’all sure this is what Jesus had in mind?

Through the entire museum, room after room, gold ceiling after gold ceiling, I was amused by the juxtaposition of a hippie like Jesus, who reportedly said it was, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Matthew 10:25 NLT) with the obscene wealth that now oozes from the seat of the church founded in his name. If they melted down all the gold in the Vatican they could single-handedly end homelessness for millions of displaced persons, which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus would do. Yet there I was, walking under gilded ceilings and surrounded by art that’s worth more than the GDP of most nations. “Seriously though, you guys even read his work?

Confessing nearly 44 years worth of sins was a lengthy endeavor. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. How much time you got?”

After the museums we headed to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping for souvenirs along the way. Another building that would be far too ostentatious for Jesus’ liking, it’s basically a massive marble and gold testament to the ingenuity, artistry and power of man. If the builders and architects wanted visitors to feel small and insignificant under the eyes of God, they nailed it. The giant atop Jack’s beanstalk wouldn’t even need to duck his head to walk into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s tomb is at the front of the sanctuary near the high altar. The above ground marker is a massive bronze and gilded baldachin by Bernini that is absolutely stunning. While I may be an atheist, the history nerd in me was beside herself to be potentially standing over the grave of yet another pivotal historical figure.

The most magnificent part of the entire basilica, as far as I’m concerned, is, hands down, Michelangelo’s Pieta. WOW! There’s a reason he’s considered a master. The emotion on Mary’s face, the realistic lifelessness of Jesus, the detail of every inch of them. . . and just knowing that before my eyes was a piece of marble carved by Michel-freaking-angelo was overwhelming. I felt the anguish of a mother who’d lost her child, and I actually cried. My daughter made fun of me, but this wouldn’t be the last time Renaissance art moved me to literal tears.

The least intimidating looking security of all time: the Swiss Guard.

As we left the Basilica the girls did an impromptu impersonation of the Swiss Guard, after which we fled before getting arrested at spear-point, tried for heresy, and burned as witches. We then found a shady spot in St Peter’s Square to sit down, relax and enjoy the day. While the museum had been crowded the square was relatively empty. I’m sure there were an equal number of people in both places, but the square is so enormous and open that it felt nearly deserted. We all FaceTimed with family, I smoked a cigarette, and we spent an hour just chilling and soaking everything in. We listened to the bells tolling from the basilica, watched as traditionally dressed priests, monks and nuns passed by, and I tended to my blisters. A lovely respite before continuing with our day of sightseeing.

Swiss Guard Imitation Vatican
Olivia and Carey imitating the Swiss Guard, but in less ridiculous outfits

Though we’d taken a taxi to the Vatican, we walked back in order to see some sights along the way, the first of which was Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally built in the 2nd Century CE as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, history has seen it used as a prison, and even a papal hideout during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While primarily German and Spanish troops pillaged the city, Pope Clement VII fled down the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage that connects the Vatican to the castle, and remained there until the troops finally exhausted the city’s resources and left. Not exactly one to lead by example, that Pope, but before he died he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, so he’s not without his contributions to posterity.

We admired the castle, then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and continued walking along the Tiber until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus. The building itself, like the Castel Sant’Angelo, was austere and imposing, but had lost most of its decorative detail to the ravages of time, and was visually unimpressive. We sadly weren’t able to go inside, but I did take a moment to pay my respects to the superstars of history entombed within: the entire Julio-Claudian Dynasty, starting with Augustus and Livia, and going all the way to Caligula, Nero, and finally Nerva. Some bad, some badass, all part of the history that shaped Western Civilization.

After I’d paid my respects it was time for some more gelato, and to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. As we walked, we passed Trajan’s Market, the Altar of the Fatherland, and a statue of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite parts of Rome is that, no matter which way you turn, there’s probably something fun around the next corner.

That evening, as we savored our final dinner in Rome (best steak I’ve ever had), we decided we greatly prefer the European style of dining to the American way. Dinner is an event, and it anchored us each evening. The waiters are always nearby, ready to help, but they don’t bug you. No loud music to impede conversation, no interruptions to ask if you’re enjoying your meal, no rushing you along to free up their table. Instead, we were able to enjoy leisurely, relaxed meals that allowed us to decompress, reflect on the day, and really connect with one another. I can’t begin to say how refreshing an experience that is when you’re used to places like sports bars or Olive Garden.

Rome had been as magical as I’d always dreamed, and although we were sad to leave, we knew we still had a week and a half of European adventures still to come. Stay tuned for the next installment when we trade the narrow, cobblestone streets of Ancient Rome for the wide avenues and posh luxury of Paris! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

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