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September 28, 2008


                     ORIGINAL PRINCIPLES


I walked around the Roman Coliseum, Constantine’s gate and near the Forum, and then rode the bus past even more ruins and I thought of what I had heard during the Vatican Museum tour.  Much of the marble in the churches here was taken from what remained of the ancient Roman structures.  When you ponder it you can’t escape the conclusion that the Roman Catholic revolution here was far different than most other revolutions and conquests throughout history.


Over the years there was certainly a fair share of soldiers and bloodshed.  However, by and large the transformation here was accomplished peacefully and the “looting,” if you will, was voluntary.  The citizens, Christian believers, tore down parts of their history and culture in order to build something better: monuments to God.


The dispensation is clear: most of the Roman ruins lie as ice cream melting in the hot sun; the churches however stand tall and proud.


Seeing that Jesus Christ is called the “Prince of Peace” by the prophet Isaiah, it’s not surprising that His revolution should be a peaceful one.  This is an original principle of our faith that sets it apart from all that came before it.


It’s interesting that these thoughts occurred to me on the day that I also toured the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica.  When I entered the piazza in front of the great sanctuary, I sat down and recited several extended passages from scripture that I had memorized and wrote down one that I intend to memorize in the future.  I had already read four chapters from Romans and it was clear that it was going to be a special day.


For the first time I learned the full extent of the confirmation that Simon Peter’s grave is, in fact, underneath the alter at St. Peter’s.  Bones and graffiti have been found that strongly reinforce the oral tradition of the church.


This revelation: that one of the most sacred of Christ’s Apostles had been buried in a pagan cemetery, only to have a pagan Roman emperor in the process of repenting build a church on that very spot to celebrate his ministry and sacrifice; was gradually replaced by anger building up inside of me.


The previous day as I fought the cattle car atmosphere in the Sistine Chapel, that was actually less crowded than usual because so many Romans take vacations in August, the seed of my discontent was planted.


God’s voice usually speaks in a “still small voice,” as it did to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12).  How can you truly feel holy and sanctified in the midst of hundreds of people taking pictures (some with flash) and talking despite being told not to?  If you can’t exercise self-discipline here, where can you?  How can you commune with the Lord while you can’t help but notice the thong underwear protruding from women’s tight pants, the shorts, and other generally inappropriate clothing that are supposed to be against the rules here?  Sometimes the rules are enforced, though arbitrarily.  Usually, there’s a happy medium where paper shawls are given to those exposing too much skin.


I wondered as I left the Vatican excavations and strolled through the plaza again; why aren’t there more people studying the bible here and reciting scripture like I had?  Perhaps there were, but I didn’t notice them.  I thought to myself, “Why aren’t there massive prayer circles of believers praying in this most blessed place?”  Why aren’t priests who work in the Vatican tasked to walk and pray over this piazza constantly, if not also preaching mini-sermons in the midst of all of these believers?  Surely, the pope is not the only one worth listening to in this place during his weekly audiences.  So many come here daily who miss the pope on Wednesday.  Why aren’t people on their knees praying here?  Where aren’t there groups of young people singing praise songs and encouraging the older people to remember their carefree youth?


Later, I learned that in one of the few new buildings in the Vatican Garden Pope John Paul II had instituted a convent where the nuns pray 24-hours a day according to the pontiff’s specific instructions.  Great, why did it take until the 20th century to think of this?


If the church is attempting to show compassion to “the least” like Jesus did then where are the soup kitchens and homeless shelters at the Vatican?  I guess they don’t want shabbily clothed poor people marring the view.


These are essentially original principles of our faith.  Remember, this “Way” began with Peter and Paul preaching to small groups in homes and upper rooms.  Peter was a fisherman who looked more like today’s homeless than the pope.  Gigantic churches aren’t required.  The things that I’m mentioning are signs of praise, worship and faith that would only be expected at the epicenter of the leading ministry of fully half of the world’s approximately 2 billion Christians. 


Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly a place for some enormous, ornate churches dedicated to our Lord.  Europeans spent a lot of time and effort demonstrating their faith in this way.  And the Lord has blessed them for it.


But now…something is missing here.  The church has become too institutionalized, too concerned with administration and management, if these simple outward signs of faith are not on display here at all times.


Instead of a sacred, reverential, intimate setting the Vatican has become more akin to an amusement park than a church.  The only thing I saw on that day that encouraged quiet meditation with God was a small sanctuary in the grotto underneath St. Peter’s.  Just above Peter’s grave, the small beautiful place ornately decorated in gilded gold, could probably hold no more than 25 people or so.  After my group passed through, the group behind us actually took the time to recite a prayer out loud in unison in this very special setting.  I was comforted.


All Christians everywhere need to get back to original principles.  This means teaching people to focus their lives on the Lord and His word.


Just like you can’t take a pagan temple and put a cross on it and expect it to be transformed overnight; much more is required than just calling yourself someone who believes in God, if you expect your full blessings.


Moses instructed the Hebrews of Israel to teach their children the Law (Deuteronomy 4:7-9).  He didn’t say, leave it to others.  I admire the boldness of Joshua’s proclamation to the nation of Israel, “…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).  This kind of intensity is often lacking in our families today. The first Psalm says of the blessed believer: “…his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (1:2).  The book of Proverbs teaches us to teach our children wisdom and that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).    We have diluted or forgotten these commandments as we pursue modern lives dedicated to pleasure.


Would it be too much to ask vacationing tourists to obey simple rules when they come to visit the churches in Italy?   Would it be cruel to ask tourists to go back to their hotels to change clothes?  I admit that I forgot once or twice and entered one of the revered sites in shorts.  I recall being terrified that I would be asked to leave; because the visit meant that much to me.  I wonder how others might have felt.  Frankly, it would have served me right on these occasions to have to go back to the monastery, up one of those unforgiving hills, to change.


Would it be too much to require people to attend mass, at least when they come to the Vatican?  This is at a minimum.  Perhaps, it should be necessary that written request be made from priests and ministers in order to obtain entry to the most sacred places.  Maybe a short class should be mandatory before entrance.  Or, maybe they should shut the place down for a year or two to cleanse it and readjust peoples’ attitudes.


I don’t mean to suggest that the Vatican should be closed like the Muslims close Mecca, but little is gained spiritually for many who come here amid the crush of the crowd.  Much here should be set aside as special places for people interested in seriously deepening their faith.  Secular institutions, such as museums, can take over much of what is being offered here now; particularly the statues from the eras of the Greek and Roman empires.


Those who come here should be made to jump through a few more hoops.  That way, the experience will mean more to them.  As in life, things that come too easily are often taken for granted.  Making these changes would set the tone that God and faith are once again to be taken seriously in our lives.  An original principle.







For an interesting read from a different angle check out "The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition."  This is the recent book from an author who edified me in college with "The World's Religions" (also known as "The Religions of Man"), Huston Smith.

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