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What's Wrong with Rome?
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September 22, 2008                                                   


                        What’s Wrong with Rome?


I hesitate to write this post, but it must be said.  I resist criticizing Roman Catholic dogma, I agree with much of it (I mean they preach John 3:16 and Romans 10:9), and nothing is to be gained by knit picking about smaller issues.  However, my tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel left me sitting under the beautiful handiwork of Michelangelo Buonarroti asking for the Lord to forgive us.


I recall the first time I remember paying attention to the pope.  John Paul II was elected under unusual circumstances.  It was Fall 1982, I woke up, hung over, as a freshman in college and heard the radio news announcer say that the pope was dead and that the Cardinals would be convening in a sacred conclave to elect another.  I said to myself; “this is weird, this is just like the news one morning earlier in the semester.”  I thought, that must have been one wild party.  Well, I wasn’t dreaming or on some bad trip.  A pope had died for the second time in little more than a month.


For various reasons, Karol Wojtyla immediately became a worldwide superstar.  One of the most striking things about him was his gleaming white frock and stylish hats.  My friends and I, mostly non-Catholic, were all impressed; but I remember thinking: “Why is there such an ornate and lavish aura over the pope?”


Even though I was still in sin I knew enough about Jesus Christ to know that believers were supposed to emulate Him, His sacrifice, His rejection of the material, and His humility.  On the other hand, people expect God’s representative on earth, “the servant of servants,” to look incredibly impressive.  So, I let that go.


However, when I arrived in Rome last month I was a little taken aback when I saw the 20-25 foot walls surrounding much of Vatican City.  On the tour, I learned about the tunnel between St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo that provided popes throughout history an escape route in case of attack.  And, as a history major I remembered the politics and royal nature of the early papacy, as well as all of the wars that popes had been involved in while expanding and defending the Papal States in the Middle Ages.  It all got me to thinking.


Then I began to see the ancient Greek and Roman artwork that had been stockpiled by the pontiffs.  They were compiled initially to recreate the feeling of the ancient civilizations for the pope’s influential guests.  It is a form of admiration, admiration of the artwork and knowledge of Rome and its predecessor, the Greeks.  Or, is it idol worship?


It is hard to avoid the fact that this approaches worship.  These artifacts are tantamount to “idols.”  Part of the Vatican Museum is a testament to coveting idols.


It’s one thing to convert a pagan temple into a church, but in the past the Holy See acknowledged the Roman god minerva as the protector of Rome and displays other Greek and Roman gods as if they are something to be admired. 


Isn’t the goal of glorifying God through His Son Jesus Christ muddled in all of this?  In a way this cheapens our faith.  As Christians, we lose credibility and authenticity when we waste our time on such meaningless pursuits.  I mean it’s OK to admire the artwork for what it’s worth, but there has to be some limit.  In many ways, what’s wrong here is no different than what we study in college.  But, this is supposed to be about God not secular education.


It’s one thing for Michelangelo to include Roman seers who had predicted the birth of a Savior in the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (indeed Paul makes similar observations in the book of Acts 17:28), but the accumulation of all of this wealth has absolutely nothing to do with preaching the gospel.  This is much worse than turning pagan “holy” days into Christian holidays or switching statues of Roman gods into statues of Christian saints while no one is looking as some characterize past Catholic actions.  At least there you’re trying to build the faith.


And, it gets worse.


When you consider that the true nature of idols is of the demonic fallen “angels” who are the devil’s lieutenants (Psalms 106:37, 1 Corinthians 10:20); one could fairly argue that this is all on the verge of satanic.  I don’t doubt that these evil spirits (Jupiter, Apollo etc.) appeared to ancient Romans and Greeks and offered them powers and the ability to know the future in exchange for allegiance.  But, scripture is clear in proclaiming that to be sin.  Why do so many, even today, insist on placing so much value in these monuments?


Don’t get me wrong I studied and greatly admired particularly Greek mythology for years and count it as helping build my spirituality.  This prepared me for Christ in a sense.  Indeed, you could say that these gods were Rome’s tutors to “get them to Christ” almost like the Law of Moses was to the Jews (Galatians 3:24).


However, the incredible opulence of the Vatican and many of the churches on Rome, the time and expense of the artwork, the statues and buildings built to glorify past popes is troubling to say the least.  Hearing stories of popes angling to get themselves painted into paintings is pure vanity to say the least. As the leader of the body of Christ they were charged with teaching others to overcome their material desires and to “make no provision for the flesh”.  Instead, here they are greedily contradicting the word of God.


You can see how much of the artwork here inspired generations who did not know how to read.  But, as majestic and spiritual as it is you can’t escape the feeling that it goes a bit too far.


The popes’ main problem was that they saw themselves as the successors to Caesar not to Jesus Christ, Peter or Paul.  Can you imagine any of them wasting money on a mansion or a castle, or asking that a statue or building be built in their honor?


I also wonder if popes in the past have made saints of previous popes in order to increase the likelihood that they will, in turn, be made saints also by their successors.  I have always questioned the warrior popes.  Whatever, happened to “perfect love casts out fear”?  Too many popes converted by the sword, at best; or were actually afraid of dying, at worst.  How can you believe in heaven and be afraid of dying?


Worse still, all of the money and effort used to amass all of this wealth could have been used to improve the lot of the poor.  Or, to teach them to read the word of God instead of to imagine it by looking at paintings.  More importantly, this would have helped them develop deeper personal relationships with Jesus Christ.


This is exactly the problem that the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) had.  Both east and west spent too much time making themselves kings and creating fleshly monuments to God (and themselves) instead of building the spiritual faith of their citizens and helping the Lord build His Spiritual kingdom.  Both selfishly refused to relinquish power and reunite the empire, which was supposed to be an empire to glorify God (not themselves).  This in and of itself demonstrates where their thinking was.


I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that despite their great efforts to show faith and spread faith, eventually God allowed both empires to fall.  By way of contrast, how admirable monks and nuns sometimes seem compared to those who are supposed to be leading them.


I don’t have a problem with Roman Catholic dogma.  Jesus preached against sectarianism Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50).  He taught us to “love one another” (John 15:12) and to be of “one accord” (Philippians 2:2).  God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4).  There is one God, one faith and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).  We only need agree on the simple basics and get on with the good works; the fruit of our faith.


Indeed, many Protestant televangelists who preach the false “gospel of wealth,” all while raking in the cash, and some conservative American Christians who “worship” politics and politicians are no better.  We all have idols, we all are full of ourselves with vanity at times.  We are little different than the Catholics.


We are all guilty of falling short of the grace and glory of God.  That's why during what I thought would be the highlight to my trip to Italy I was sitting on a bench at the back of the Sistine Chapel asking the Lord to forgive us with tears in my eyes.





Saint Peter's at sunset

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