The young man in the picture is Brother Santiago Mejia Rojas, and I’ve known him since he was 12 years old. He is now 27, living at a seminary in Rome and in his fifth year of studying for the priesthood with an order called The Legionaries of Christ. Because of Santiago, my time in that amazing city will always stand as one of the most special segments of this trip.
After our relaxing week in Tuscany, Tom and Peggy Briggs and I arrived in Rome via the fast train from Florence, zipping through the Italian countryside at 140 mph. The following day we discovered the ease of the metro system in Rome; there are two lines, the A line and the B line, and they intersect at Termini, and that’s all you need to know. We changed lines, got off at the Circo Massimo station and walked across the street to the very disappointing Circus Maximus.
Circus Maximus is the old Ben Hur racetrack, where more than a quarter of a million Romans used to attend a day of racing. I was here in 1966 and recall it being a well-defined track with manicured infield and viewing areas, with lots of classical statuary, but it has deteriorated badly since. It reflects the challenge of a city that has huge financial difficulties but is still obligated to maintain so many historical treasures. They should bring back Saturday chariot races, that would being in some revenue.
We walked around Palatine Hill and ended up on Via Imperiali, the main artery between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. The road was built by Mussolini in an effort to connect his office at Venezia to the symbols of ancient Roman power. It runs over the top of the ruins of various Roman forums, and excavation is ongoing on both sides of the road and also underneath it.
We stopped and looked at some of the Forum ruins, and walked past the street performers toward the Colosseum. On a wall there was a depiction of the growth of the Roman Empire, very enlightening; at its height during its first 200 years, it encompassed most of Europe including England, an entire band across northern Africa, a great deal of what is now the Middle East, and into Asia.
Lines to enter the Colosseum were long, so we signed up for a tour and got in immediately. It’s wooden floor and so much of the marble structure were used to build the Vatican and many of the 900+ churches in Rome, but it’s fun to try and envision the way it once was, its floor in place and all the sub-chambers underneath for animals and gladiators, with complete walls and seating. Of course you rarely see a photo of the Colosseum that doesn’t include the dramatic, almost iconic view where the top two levels have been sliced off. It seated 50,000 people, each with a ticket and a numbered seat.
In 80 A.D. it opened with 100 consecutive days of events, during which 9000 wild animals were killed. Given that there were 70 such amphitheaters throughout the Empire and that these “games” went on for 400 years, it’s no wonder that lions, tigers and leopards all ultimately faced extinction. The animal hunting was in the morning – with the emperor often joining in with bow and arrow, from the safety of the Royal Box – and the gladiator battles and the human bloodshed were in the afternoon. Lunchtime usually included executions. You just can’t get quality entertainment like that anymore.
We ended the day by going to St. Peter in Chains, the church where the chains St. Peter wore are displayed, as is Michelangelo’s majestic statue of Moses, every bit as powerful as his statue of David in Florence.
The next day we met Santiago at 12:30 at the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years, and he looked terrific, healthy and happy. He took us to the restaurant where the current Pope liked to have lunch when he was a Cardinal, and after lunch, while Tom and Peggy joined a tour, we went to the Vatican Museum. There was a long line to get in, and we had time to catch up.
Having known him through his teens, it was wonderful to witness his transformation into a young man committed to his spirituality and his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and also, as I would learn throughout the afternoon, a student with great knowledge and passion for art, religion and philosophy.
Standing in line we had a chance to talk about many issues, and I learned a lot about the church that was comforting. I asked Santiago about creationism versus evolution, and how the church could deny the science. “We don’t, we think rather in terms of creationism and evolution,” he said. “We just believe that at some point in that process God touched man and gave him a soul, on a totally spiritual level, something impossible to ‘evolve’ from the material, from nature; man’s capacity to reflect, his conscience, his ability to reason, all the elements that separate him from every other species: his human soul. Human beings are both spiritual and material, not as two separate compound ‘things’ but rather one whole being, by no means an animal and by no means an angel … human.”
He talked a lot about the balance of faith and reason, and said that many of the stories in the Bible are parables for teaching, especially in the book of Genesis. The Old and New Testaments are historical documents, yes, but also a treasure of human learning and reason. It was reassuring to have a young man so passionate about his calling to the priesthood say that the reality of the Garden of Eden and the serpent and apple isn’t as important as its effectiveness as a tool for teaching about temptation and sin and man’s inherent choice between good and evil. That choice is a highlight of man’s liberty, he said, something animals don’t have and angels wish they did.
Walking through the many galleries of the Vatican Museum, Santiago indicated that all art since the end of the Roman Empire encompasses religion, especially Christianity, and that was hard to dispute that looking at this collection. Most impressive were the enormous tapestries, some covering an entire wall, woven by nuns with painstaking detail. And there was even a room of contemporary art, including a couple of works by Salvador Dali. Not sure I saw the theology in those.
Everything in the Vatican Museum is prelude to the Sistine Chapel. In a courtyard there are multiple stations with photographs of the ceiling and paintings, where tour guides line their charges in front to explain the images in great detail. Santiago showed me a few of the nuances of the ceiling … where Michelangelo added his own face, for example. My favorite story involved a Cardinal who complained to the Pope about the nudity in Michelangelo’s work, so the artist put this guy’s face on Minos, the Lord of the Underworld, consigning the Cardinal to hell. Fun stuff.
Of course the ceiling of the Chapel is best known for the moment of creation. God has his left arm around a woman and left hand on the shoulder of a young boy; there are several interpretations, the most obvious being that this is Mary and Jesus. His right hand is strong, extended, his finger about to touch Adam’s, whose hand is limp, awaiting God’s gift of life. It had new meaning based on our conversation earlier, now representing the moment that God gave Man a soul.
While I was taking in the ceiling, standing in the very room where Cardinals gather to select a new Pope, Santiago was talking to a guard, and eventually he beckoned me behind a security rope and into an anteroom. It was just the two of us. The room had a small couch, a desk and chair, a staircase descending a few feet to a door, and a larger one spiraling upward.
“This is the Room of Tears,” Santiago told me. “After the college of Cardinals elect a new Pope, he has the choice to accept or reject the election. If he accepts, he comes immediately in here, where he prays and is usually overcome with emotion; thus the name. Then he goes down into the room behind that door and changes into the white vestment of the Holy Father. Finally, the other stairs take him up through the Vatican buildings to the balcony where he greets the masses.” It was an honor to be in that room.
We went outside and grabbed an ice cream, and then headed to St. Peter’s Basilica. Earlier in the day the line had wrapped around St. Peter’s Square and doubled back, but 40 minutes before closing there was no line and we walked right in. Santiago did a wonderful job hitting the highlights in the limited time we had.
One of the twelve apostles, Peter, or Simon Peter, is regarded as the first Bishop of Rome, and consequently the first Pope, and was also the first of the apostles to recognize Christ’s true identity; in nearly every image of St. Peter he is holding a key, symbolizing Christ entrusting him with the keys to heaven. Peter was crucified under orders from the Emperor Nero, and at his request he and the cross were upside down because he didn’t feel he deserved to die in the same manner as Jesus. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square.
To the right as you enter St. Peter’s is Michelangelo’s Pieta, the only work he ever signed and an extraordinary statue of Christ, after the crucifixion, sprawled across Mary’s lap. Santiago pointed out that Mary would be enormous if she stood up, but that from our angle the proportion between the figures is perfect. Such was Michelangelo’s genius.
The church is full of stunning paintings that are not paintings at all. Every one of them is a mosaic painstakingly made from pieces almost too small to discern up close. The dimensions of the building are staggering and impossible to comprehend from the ground until you are told that the distance between the floor and the top of the dome would accommodate two Statue of Liberties, on top of one another.
The remains of St. Peter are directly under the center point of the dome and the massive and stunning canopy over the Papal alter. That the remains were actually his was a matter of speculation for hundreds of years, but an excavation begun in 1939 yielded enough proof that the Pope made it official in 1950. At least 125 Popes are buried in St. Peter’s, and some of them are visible and incredibly well preserved in a condition called “incorruptible.” There are scientific theories for this based on things like exposure to oxygen, and there are theological theories that Saints bodies don’t decay in a mortal way. Whichever, it’s very dramatic, if a bit unsettling.
We had far too little time in St. Peter’s, Santiago and I. He’ll be in Rome less than another year before he gets reassigned for a three-year internship, so I likely won’t get back there with him as a guide, but I would love to return and spend a day in the Basilica with someone who knows the story behind every detail. Is there another building in the world as beautiful? The Taj Mahal? I’ll see that in January, but I don’t see how it can compare. There is a reason Emerson called St. Peter’s “an ornament of the earth.”
My final day in Rome I went back to St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s weekly General Assembly. This is not a religious service, it’s more an opportunity for the Pope to connect to and deliver a message to the masses. It was a perfect day, and a very festive environment. The Pope arrives in the Popemobile, circling the square and waving to everyone before being driving up to the platform in front of the Basilica, and if you can’t see him you can follow him on the big screens. During the proceedings over the next 90 minutes or different groups from different countries, many of them adorned in matching hats or scarves or t-shirts, are recognized in their native language, and they erupt with great cheering. There was one group from Germany that apparently thought they were at a soccer match, but it was all fun and celebratory, and of course emotional for many who had traveled a long way for this opportunity.
Finally, I made my way across the Tiber River to the Pantheon, which is a very old church with a hole in the ceiling, but after St. Peter’s I didn’t see a reason to linger. That evening I had dinner with Santiago and his friend Brother John, from Pennsylvania, a terrific guy who is less than two years from being ordained, and John told me the most interesting thing about the Pantheon.
“The Romans were smart”, he said. ”They didn’t try to force their religious beliefs on the countries and peoples that they conquered. And the Pantheon was the place where they put different artifacts and religious icons so visitors from other parts of the Empire could worship as they preferred.” In essence, the Pantheon was the first non-denominational church.
I hated for that dinner to end, as much as I enjoyed talking to those guys. But I left comfortable in knowing that my young friend Santiago has found contentment and happiness, and is so passionate about his studies and so committed to his calling. He is going to positively impact many, many lives as he moves along this path that he has chosen. He certainly impacted mine.