In or around the year 50 AD, the missionary Paul sailed to Italy to visit the nascent churches which had sprang up in Rome. These tiny churches scandalously called Lord a rebel from the far eastern provinces. Rome was no stranger to tolerating the beliefs and customs of its conquered subjects, and this was no different in Judea, where the governor Pontius Pilate anxiously watched on as a splinter sect of the generally submissive Jewish population threatened to throw a wrench into the whole arrangement and destabilize the region. With detente in mind and the power of Rome at his back, he had the leader of this sect sentenced to death, and thus sheltered Rome the possibility of having to commit extra troops or unduly worry about this province which was important only in that it provided important coastal sea routes to Egypt, the bread-basket of the Empire.
For thousands of years since, Rome has been the geographic center of Christianity – which made it odd how now, in 2007, I was going to Rome on a missions trip to share Christianity with the Romans. It is this curiosity that likely resulted in the many skeptical stares I got from folks when I shared that I was going on a missions trip to Italy. “Isn’t everyone Christian there?”, they would say. Or, “convenient excuse for an Italy vacation! *wink, wink*.” (Yes, I really got that) True, every Roman has grown up in the shadow of the Catholic church, but what became clear in my conversations with Romans was that this has only served to reinforce their already favorable or unfavorable sentiments towards the church.
At La Sapienza University in Rome, myself and a group of a few dozen Miamians set out to talk Jesus with college kids. Most conversations went one of a few ways: “Oh, yeah… I’m Catholic so I obviously know Jesus. Plus my parents would kill me if I wasn’t.” or, “Have you read a single news headline about the church lately? You’d have to be crazy to adhere to that dogma!” or even, “Forget about Jesus, what do you think about Silvio Berlusconi? Man is that guy a character.” As for the latter, I failed to do my research so I reacted with a chuckle and a clueless stare, but as for the other comments, it was clear that everyone in Italy had an opinion of the Church. But not many had really spent a lot of time giving thought to what that meant about what they thought of Jesus.Yes, He’s the dude that Mary is holding in that really famous sculpture in the Vatican… but who really is He? And why should I care? It would seem that a city whose Christians once so genuinely followed Jesus that they did so to their deaths had somehow lost its way.
They say that you learn just as much about yourself as you do others in situations like this. I have to say, on flight home as I was reflecting on my experience in Rome, I couldn’t help but liken the city’s story to my own: once zealous in my newfound faith, proud even the point of persecution; then outward expression, erecting cathedrals, being known openly as a Christian city; but then growing complacent… its cathedrals still tall, its God still just as powerful, but its pews less and less full – its people having grown accustomed to tradition and being content with going through the motions. It was a worthwhile comparison to consider, and one which still convicts me to this day.
As a history nerd, I was beside myself being in Rome. No place in the world has shaped so much of the course of events that we find ourselves in to this day, and one can just aimlessly wonder across the city and every few blocks stumble upon buildings and places of monumental historical significance: the tomb of Augustus, the Pantheon, stone prison cells from which books of the Bible were written, and the list goes on. Most of my time here was spent on the campus of La Sapienza, a good clip outside of the city center – here Rome seems much more like a real city: people on their way to work or to class, making a quick stop at the coffee shop bar to grab an espresso and a canoli… businessmen reading the paper, ignoring the tourist crowd and going about their day. It’s hard to get this side of Rome with all the touristy things to see (which you really can’t avoid, nor should you. Because, well… “When in…”, oh, forget it… ), but Rome remains a city with a vibrant sense of life if you care to find it. Just do yourself a favor and skip the Pantheon view for dinner and head down that next alley, you may not have a violinist at your table (collecting tips), but you’ll thank yourself later, and your pasta will not be made with Ragu.