My wife, Carmen, and I just returned from three weeks in Italyour first visit to that absorbingly beautiful country. There are many reasons to visit Italy, but a Christian can’t help but enjoy it as one of the formative sites in the development of Western Christianity.
We love visiting churches, and Italy has an enormous number of them, in every small town, and concentrated in the heart of every city, all Roman Catholic, of course, and most very old.
Italian churches, though, seem more like monuments than worship places. That might be because they are so ancient, and have accumulated so much history, so much amazing art and architecture, which is one of the reasons the churches attract eggheads like us.
Though sometimes they made me think of the cluttered basement of a spinster great-aunt who’s never been able to discard a single thing in her entire thousand-year life.
It’s can’t be easy living next to the high muckamucks of the world’s largest and most senior Christian denomination, but the Italians have managed it. One person said to me, “We Italians have been too close to the Vatican for too many years to take it as seriously as the rest of the world does.” (Just as my friends who work in the General Conference building aren’t dazzled by that institution; familiarity bleeds off some of the mystery.)
That attitude seems to extend to religion generally. One of our Italian acquaintances described a common scenario there: a boy goes to church with his mother until he is confirmed, then quits attending except for his marriage and the occasional funeral; he declares himself an atheist or agnostic; regards the church with scorn; and if he’s lucky his mother, sisters, wife, and daughters will spend the rest of their lives praying for him.
For all the fantastic churches, for all the history they entomb, I didn’t see much evidence that religion has the same kind of force in private life as it has in North America (though the Catholic church still wields power in Italian politics). Only 23 percent of Italians attend church even once a month.
I confess that there is much about Catholicism generally that seems frighteningly exotic to me, that throws up cultural barriers I have difficulty surmounting. The images, repetitive prayers, ostentatious vestments, confession, the baffling theory that the bread and wine magically transform into something they don’t look like in order to serve as the essential ingredient for salvation, praying to blessed bits of bread under glass, a ho-hum interest in Bible study, weak singing, the mysterious celibate clergy and religious with their distinctive uniforms, and the vast, secretive bureaucracy with its strange symbologies and ritesall of these make it feel alien, and I can understand why Catholicism creeped us Protestants out, and why it still causes some to retreat to their paranoid place.
Nothing, though, had quite as much of that effect on me as visiting the Vatican. The grand and grandiose opulence of the place, the scale of the architecture, the accretion of wealth and objects of beautyI was overwhelmed.
On one hand, I’m glad that someone back then thought to collect so much art and sponsor so much amazing architecture so I can come and see it. On the other, I kept wondering how you get from the poor, humble Jesus described in the Gospels to the acres of marble and tons of bronze in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Few of us Christians have ever managed to live just as Jesus did. St. Francis tried (on whose burial place we found another monumental basilicathe man would be offended). The Catholic hierarchy especially has, I think, gone rather far down the road away from the simplicity of Jesus.1
But we Protestants have accumulated some real estate, toowe’ve just not yet been at it for two thousand years. As for humility, though we don’t wear mitres embroidered in gold, take a look at the lifestyles of some of our most celebrated religious leaders. (In his irreverent mockumentary Religulous, Bill Maher reminds the expensively dressed Dr. Jeremiah Cummings of the Worldwide International Campaign for Christ that Saint Paul traveled with only the garment he had on, and asks, “Should I assume that this is the only two-thousand dollar suit you own?”)
Nor are we especially open to the Spirit’s leading. We don’t have a pope, but we have our institutionalized interpretations of the Bible, our fundamentals, and our “traditional positions,” which are inflexible in their own way.
I suspect we Adventists have managed to accumulate as much inertia in 160 years as took the Catholics in 2,000 years.
And we did it with much less stonework.
I’ll venture an opinion: that this whole church thing has never quite lived up to its potential, among any of the tribes of Christendom. We Christians have been sometimes good, and occasionally very good, but too inconsistent to impress the world with our tolerance, peacefulness, helpfulness, and spiritual simplicity. Had we, all of us, stuck to the simple message of Jesusthat God is good, he wants us to be good to one another, and he’s got a better place prepared for usand tried our best to live it, we might have saturated the world with the love of Jesus, and made the church so indispensable that no one would dare show it contempt.
But the church has been tempted by power, money, and our damnable propensity to complicate things.2 Places like St. Peter’s, and people like Jeremiah Cummings and Benny Hinnand really, the contradictions in all of us who use Christ’s nameinvite the skeptical to call us on our inconsistencies with the ministry of Jesus.
Fortunately, there is grace even for the church. Here’s one of my favorite Ellen White quotations:
Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church [and she appears to mean the entire Christian church, not just ours] is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of his grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts.3
Apparently he loves us not because of what we are, but in spite of it.
Notes and References
1. Humberto Eco’s medieval mystery, The Name of the Rose, gives a fascinating account of the conflicts between the impoverished mendicant religious orders and the extravagantly wealthy Papacy. According to Eco, in the century after St. Francis, church leaders insisted that all must acknowledge that Jesus owned property and approved of wealth, for to say otherwise would destroy the church’s credibility.
2. I wrote about our complicating the Christian message in the fall 2003 issue of Spectrum magazine, in a piece called “Whose Church Is It, Anyway?”
3. Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles (Boise, Idaho.: Pacific Press, 1970), 12.