Travel Report: Rome – The Church

Needless to say, churches abound in Rome. The most awesome one is of course St. Peter’s Basilica. Awesome, literally: built during the period of counter-reformation, its very purpose is to showcase the papal power. It is “the building designed to awe”, writes Lonely Planet Rome. It certainly lives up to its purpose, with masters’ strokes of genius embedded in its inception: Bramanate laid the initial ground work; Michelangelo put in it the dome; Bernini’s gave it the baldachin. Beside the architectural wonders, it has perhaps the most elaborately decorated church interior, with paintings, frescoes, sculptures, ceiling and pilaster decorations. Its pure artistic beauty is breathtaking, even for non-believers. For believers, there are also masses conducted inside the praying area every day. If feeling connected with something bigger than oneself (a.k.a. the god) is the purpose of the mass, it is certainly a great place to do so.

Speaking of mass, as a non-believer, I was not allowed to sit in any of the masses inside the church. But I got a perfect chance to blend in: the New Year Mass conducted by the Pope in the St. Peter’s square. There was a huge crowd, mostly local Italian. The pope addressed the crowd from a window in a building north of the square, and the crowd listened. But obvious I couldn’t understand a single word, so I looked up his speech on the web (link, at least I think it is this one). The content of the mass is about slavery in today’s world—child labor and human trafficking, a very up-to-date topic (with numerous biblical references, of course). I guess it explains the church’s enduring popularity: It has provided moral guidance for millions for over two thousand years.

St. Peter’s Basilica is only one part of the Vatican city. The other part permitted for tourists is the Vatican Museum. The crowning jewel of the museum and “the heart of the Vatican” is the Sistine Chapel, which is most famous for Michelangelo’s paintings of stories from the Book of Genesis on the ceilings and the Last Judgment on the wall. I was slightly taken aback when the audio guide announced matter-of-factly that these paintings is the story of human history. Then I figured, well, if the brainwashing doesn’t happen here, where else?

So I had this random thought while staring at the Last Judgment: I found all those who are going to hell are dark and have twisted body, and all those who are in the heaven are full of light and have very muscular bodies. Visible physical beauty, as the narration of the audio guide claims, is an expression of virtue and hope. It then came to my mind that who actually go to heaven? In his Divine Comedy (which I only read the introduction and the first a few chapters), Dante put Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Limbo, the outside circle of hell, so I cannot help but wonder where Confucius might end up. Well, my conclusion was not flattery to the Chinese philosopher, to put it mildly. Perhaps Nietzsche said it better, “In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”

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Wendong Wang

A chemist who blogs

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