- Mission 1: Withdraw cash from the world’s only ATM with a Latin language option (FAILED);
- Mission 2: Understand the purpose of the Catholic pilgrimage, as a Protestant in the Vatican (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Spot the flamboyantly-dressed Pontifical Swiss Guards (ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: The intricate artwork on the ceiling and walls of St Peter’s Basilica; there’s simply nothing else like it in this day and age and never again will be.
Lowlight: The tacky gift shops full of religious and Vatican souvenirs.
Feat of Architecture: St. Peter’s Basilica.
Recce Fact: Vatican City was officially neutral during WWII and allegedly safeguarded Nazi ill-gotten gold.
A Protestant of the Northern Irish Unionist variety might be as likely to find themselves in Vatican City (Stato della Città del Vaticano) as a fellow named Mohammed might be found venturing into a pork shop. I like to believe that I am nothing if not openminded, despite having some pre-conceived notions about the Roman Catholic Church. It’s easy to understand the attraction of the place. There’s more than enough splendour to ogle over regardless of faith and, fortunately, unlike Mecca where non-Muslims are personae non gratae, there’s no need to recite Hail Mary to gain entry to this holy state; just walk right in through the open gates.
Since it was more of a curiosity to visit this independent city state than a religious pilgrimage of any sort, I came without any agenda and decided that I would see as much as I could without paying a cover charge (ruling out the Sistene Chapel with its masterpiece ceiling by Michelangelo). The way I see it, there’s little point in paying an entry fee when it’s not permitted to take photographs; supposedly to protect the integrity of the sensitive historic artwork from flash photography, but in reality it’s more likely to protect copyrights and profits. Unfortunately, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to get into any of the Vatican’s buildings with anything that looks remotely like professional camera equipment, so low quality smartphone photography had to suffice.
Situated on a hill (although not obvious these days), the ancient settlement acquired its historical and religious significance over time, most notably with St. Peter being martyred in 65 AD by crucifixion, now marked by the focal point – St. Peter’s Square. In the middle of the square stands the 25m tall nearly 4000 year old Egyptian obelisk from Heliopolis, erected on the grounds by Emperor Caligula. Poor old Peter was executed by the tyrannical Emperor Nero who really had it in for the Christians and blamed them for the great fire of Rome. It is believed that he was crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to die on the cross in the same manner as Christ.
Gift shops are scattered throughout the grounds within the city’s walls selling all sorts of religious pruck; miniature icons, rosary beads, Vatican trinkets, magnets, textiles, scrolls etc. More interestingly, many shops sold a selection of less tasteful items that were verging on blasphemous. Pope Francis bobblehead for your mantlepiece, or perhaps a pope ashtray or lighter anyone?
The most prominent attraction in Vatican City is certainly St. Peter’s Basilica, originally constructed in 4 AD as a much less impressive building. The grand landmark seen today was built between the 1500s-1600s. People flock here from across the world in droves for a variety of reasons; from the Renaissance/Baroque architecture fanfolk to the art fanatics who come to admire the plethora of frescos and sculptures by all the greats. It was obvious that a significant number were there on a religious pilgrimage and it was delightful to see so many nationalities and ethnicities wearing robes and habits of all the colours of the rainbow, representing several continents.
It’s hard to comprehend the attraction of a shrine of crusty old bones belonging to various venerated individuals, such as the catacombs that lie beneath much of Rome; the Vatican being no exception. However, in yonder years, Catholics subscribed to the concept of indulgences, whereby salvation could be earned (kudos accumulated) through making such pilgrimages, venerations and also through the purchase of relics (later abolished in the 1500s).
In St. Peter’s Basilica, there is something for practically all. It evokes as much regret as it does wonder upon the realisation that this world shall never see its likes again; not only because of the lost traditional art forms but since every major investment in the church comes with much controversy that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
After ascending over 500 steps to the 136m cupola, the highest dome in the world, one can get a good look at the ceiling (another work of Michaelangelo) and the main interior below. I have never seen anything quite like it, except perhaps at the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (a close second but nowhere near as intricate nor decorative) and to imagine how artists and sculptors all those years ago worked at height with scaffold constructions is almost unfathomable and makes me queasy even thinking about it. Nowadays there is a protective “cage” to prevent any incidents.
I must admit I am slightly envious of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in this respect since Protestant churches are devoid of any visual artforms with churches and cathedrals typically featuring nothing but plain, whitewashed walls. Come on fellow Protestants; I know we don’t promote symbolism/holy depictions and art can be a distraction but couldn’t we dicky-up those white walls just a smidgen?
By the time I started grammar school, gone were the days where pupils learned interesting languages like Latin and Ancient Greek that would have helped us in many walks of life, from medicine to botany, or using ATMs to withdraw cash in Vatican City.
I was determined to track down the famous ATM that has a Latin language option; the only one of its kind in the world. Testament to the fact that Latin is still the official language of the Holy See, despite it having little to no practical application. Unfortunately the entrance to the bank (Istituto per le Opere di Religione) appeared to be sealed-off and guarded by security on the day I visited so I had no chance to see it for myself. Oh well, Dominus providebit (“the Lord shall provide“) and whatnot.
Jesters in Pyjamas (Swiss Guard)
Despite being a separate independent state, there’s no immigration process involved; just stroll in through the city gates past the Italian guards armed with assault rifles to be met with the infamous jesters… I mean, Swiss Guard at the other side. At that time, Europe was on high alert due to the rise of ISIS and access to all the museums and landmarks required passing through a series of security scanners. It’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, as in the case of Her Majesty’s royal guards of London that are highly trained combatants not to be trifled with. Yet, if there was a terrorist in our midst, I would sooner take my chances in running in the direction of the fellow with the Beretta assault rifle outside the walls than the Vatican guard standing at the gate dressed in silk pyjamas wielding a halberd. True to their name, they must be Swiss citizens to be recruited; a peculiar longstanding tradition.
The Vatican may export its criminals to Italian jails, but maintains its own police security force, the Gendarmerie. As with Swiss Guards, they must also be Roman Catholic unmarried males, with the added criteria of being at least 5’8”, between the ages of 21-24 and must have finished school with acceptable grades. While the Swiss Guard are more concerned with the Pope himself and the holy buildings, the Gendarmerie tackle everything else from terrorism to petty crime. Vatican City is a pickpocket hot spot, like much of central Rome.
The Roman Catholic Church Through a Protestant Lens
I claim to be neither an expert nor any special authority on theological matters, but in layman’s terms here are the fundamental differences between Protestantism and Catholicism as I understand, despite them both being branches of the same Christian faith:
- Leadership: There is a distinct hierarchy to the Catholic Church (centred in the Vatican) whereas there is no centralised body to Protestant churches, but many branches. Roman Catholic clergy cannot marry, whereas Protestants can.
- Penance: Ordained clergy are able to act as middlemen in Catholicism. Protestants believe in this indirect salvation and ask for forgiveness directly from God.
- Art vs. music: As is evident from the Vatican, Catholic churches and cathedrals are traditionally styled to visually awaken the senses with elaborate, decorative divine art forms. Conversely, Protestantism finds art distracting and holy depictions sacrilegious, instead promoting music to the forefront. No grand Protestant church is complete without a grand pipe organ.
- Symbolism and rituals: Protestant services are far less ritualistic and are typically understood in a less literal sense. Baptism and the eucharist are common to both, however, Protestants do not literally believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
- Mary and saints: One of the most prominent differences is the extent to which Catholics revere Mary (the mother of Jesus) vs. Protestants viewing her merely as “a good woman”. Catholics, like Orthodox Christians, honour a host of saints and may pray to them directly. Protestants pray to no one else but God.
- Idols and symbols: Protestants do not believe in holy depictions as it would be irreverent and requires taking imaginative liberties. Catholics do revere idols of venerated individuals and even Christ himself, and not only display the cross/crucifixion as a powerful religious symbol but will physically cross themselves as Orthodox Christians also do. Rosary beads are also exclusive to the Catholic faith.
- Scriptures: There are seven extra books in the Catholic Bible vs. the Protestant version. Protestants reject the Apocrypha, believing it is not of true divine inspiration and therefore holds no authority. Latin is relevant to the Catholic church today. The fact that most people who attended church didn’t speak Latin and understood nothing of the service in Martin Luther’s time, along with the invention of the printing press, led to the Reformation; to bring the word of God to the people in a manner that they could understand.
- Afterlife: The Catholic church teaches about purgatory (a waiting place after death) while Calvinists taught pre-destination (everyone is already pre-destined to go to Heaven or not and cannot change their fate). I don’t know about purgatory, but I should note that many Protestants don’t subscribe to the belief of pre-destination; of which I am one.
- Corruption: I shan’t delve into this subject, but as as already touched upon, at one time people attempted to purchase their salvation from the Catholic Church through buying “indulgences”, which were transferrable by the way. Following the major reforms, there was a much-needed separation of church and state towards secularism. The Catholic Church today is a much less reprehensible one as far as critics are concerned than in the past.
I don’t recall ever having been to a mass service, but I have been to a number of Church of Ireland/Anglican services and they are said to be a hair’s breadth away from a Catholic mass in many respects; sombre affairs without much interpolation between the lines. The vicar will read directly from the scripture without much elaboration and the congregation have their script ready to answer/respond. At the opposite end of the spectrum in a number of Protestant ministries, modern worship is joyous and energetic, often verging on happy-clappy, but the fire-and-brimstone types also prosper. Personally, I like to mix-and-match; traditional hymns sung to pipe organs (modern worship music can be a bit too corny and US-inspired, led by just about anybody who can strum a chord) but a service that connects with people on their level and focuses on a positive message with personal anecdotes/stories; much more engaging and less threatening.
My synopsis of it all? Catholics likely think that we Protestants omit a lot and are less devout/actively practicing (I suspect they are correct, as I don’t know many who go to church consistently every Sunday). Harmful teachings and institutions of the past have been damaging and have led people to turn the opposite way from Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet half of the world’s remaining Christian population (despite rapidly losing footing to secularisation) is Catholic. Still fairly true to original despite some major reforms, while Protestantism continues to branch out into an array of interpretations, tending to pick-and-choose what is applicable and what is not. Regardless, I believe and hope that it doesn’t really matter in the end which one we choose to follow as long as we are true in intent and agree that there is one true God.
Wine, communion wafers and fish on a Friday? There is no cuisine to speak of. It’s very much an Italian fare with a dearth of public restaurants or eating establishments. It is alleged that Vatican City consumes more wine per head than any other country/state. Whether or not this is purely communion/sacramental wine or otherwise isn’t clear. I don’t believe we ever had real wine during communion in church (whereas Catholics do). It was always some Ribena-or-other. Still, as I child I was not allowed to partake.
If the cardinals tend to enjoy a few glasses with their lunch, as a Protestant and one who also enjoys a tipple or three, I certainly wouldn’t judge them. Indeed, Martin Luther himself was a flawed character and is all the more likeable/relatable for it in my opinion. He was very fond of beer for one and in defence stated:
“It’s better to be in the pub thinking about church than it is to be in the church thinking about the pub”.
Sounds of the Vatican
No one is generally born in Vatican City as there are no hospitals and those who dwell there tend to be celibate in any regard (only 5-6% of citizens are women). But in the absence of any notable Vatican-born singers or musicians, here is a beautiful chorus sung by the Sistene Chapel Choir instead.
As mentioned already, the official narrative is that art is central to the Catholic Church, whilst music is preferred by Protestants whose grand churches and cathedrals just wouldn’t be complete without a great big beast of a pipe organ at the forefront. Although absent of instruments, the Catholic Church can lay good claim to perhaps the most moving choral composition of all time, “Miserere Mei, Deus” by Allegri was written exclusively for the Sistine Chapel in the 1600s and was not to be performed elsewhere. These days, King’s College Choir in Cambridge do a jolly good version. Two minutes in, I guarantee there won’t be a dry eye left in the house.
Mission Vatican Summary
As an explorer, the Vatican is a grand oddity and, when in Rome, a quick and easy way to tick-off another state visited on one’s list of travel achievements. As a Christian, it’s good to be reminded that our beliefs aren’t all identical. Who can sincerely claim that their own are the only truth and are absolute? Sure, there is much associated with the Vatican that makes me wince, but then I remember that my own faith was born from Catholicism and there are aspects of Protestantism that don’t completely resonate with me either. Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant… it should not matter, nor should the ways in which we choose to worship as long as it comes from a good place. I wouldn’t recommend anybody to bypass the Vatican regardless of their views on religion, if only exclusively for the sensational art forms; a true jewel in Europe to be preserved at all costs.
Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and share your thoughts and feelings about Vatican City: