The Ebb and Flow of the Catholic Church
By Lindsey Swanson
I am not Catholic but was completely taken aback by St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember walking through the doors and I think my jaw actually dropped. It’s hard to explain honestly because it was almost a spiritual experience for me, my “ah-ha” moment if you will. It’s interesting how central to Italian culture Catholicism is considering there has been a decline in membership. As young people have adopted more progressive ideals, they are leaving the church and its’ traditional values behind. Yet somehow, Vatican City is still thriving, welcoming thousands of tourists every day. And while Catholicism appeals less to younger generations than ever before, another core value of Italy is preservation and appreciation of history. Around every corner in Rome is some sort of monument or piece of history. So, while not everyone who travels to the Vatican is Catholic, everyone can appreciate the beauty of it. There was so much history in St Peter’s Basilica and the architecture was designed to accentuate that history. And the fact that it was built in the early 16th century with such precision blows my mind. I can only imagine how special it must be to be apart of the services held in that church. The Basilica itself can hold over 20,000 people (it is the biggest one in the whole world) and with the surrounding plaza, over 60,000 people can be there. Being with 20,000 other people inside that church I’m sure is an extremely unique experience. Even imagining it I get chills.
I was raised Methodist so the only large church that I could really relate to was in Denver. My family and I went to a Christmas service in Denver one year and there were probably 900 people in attendance at the service. Other than that, we mostly stuck to going to our small church in Fort Collins with a total congregation of around 500. Most Americans I think have a similar experience to this. There aren’t any huge cathedrals shadowing the town which is a complete normality here in Italy. Instead of these huge holy places, we have towering corporate buildings and Wal-Marts. And while religion plays a large role in American life, I don’t think it is as central in people’s lives. Church has become something you go to when you have time and it is not a priority. It is interesting though to realize that Protestantism was a product of corruption within the Catholic Church. When the Church began to offer indulgences to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica, Martin Luther realized this was wrong and corrupt so he sparked Protestantism and the start of the Reformation. So from that, you would assume there were many similarities between America and Italy in terms of religion, which there are. But there are also a good number of differences which I have mentioned above. The trends I’ve viewed in America I think are going to translate to Italy soon enough. Young people are more focused on other aspects of life. I know I stopped going to church because I had volleyball tournaments and now that I’m in college, I use Sundays to work and get homework done. At least in Italy, younger generations are realizing their ideals don’t line up with the church’s so they would rather use Sundays for other things. However, I know the (relatively) new pope has been working to make the church more progressive.
In an article written by Chimamanda Adichie, she explains her experience growing up Catholic and where she stands now. Born in Nigeria, she attended Mass every Sunday where the services were given in Igbo and English. She began to get skeptical around sixteen when a couple was denied communion because their adult daughter married a man who had been divorced. This is when she began to realize that the church was quick to condemn and humiliate people for small mistakes. The rigidness of the church became undesirable and she realized the importance of money to the church over other core values. She attended some mass services in the United States when she went for college but that wasn’t what she wanted either. But, with the installment of Pope Francis, she tried the Catholic church again and found her calling.
Pope Francis knows it is alright to not have all the answers and how important true humanitarian work is. I mention this story because I have seen this as a common trend. Yes, Millennials are steering away from church in general but I do think Pope Francis has created a much more open, welcoming atmosphere to the Catholic Church which that appeals much more to young people. Now I don’t know if this will fix the problem of dwindling membership but I am hopeful that the Pope is setting a good example for the future and for other religions. If Italy wants to keep Catholicism as a huge part of their culture, they will have to adapt. I appreciate history and I think tradition is important because it can teach so much about the past but I also think change is for the better. In the patriarchal world of the Vatican, it would be difficult to bring about more women’s rights because there are no women involved in the conversation. Yet, that is half the population of potential Catholics. As a woman, I see a religion that is run by old, conservative white men which is the exact opposite of how I identify. I can, however, appreciate Pope Francis and the work he is doing to make the church more inclusive. In order for the Catholic church to continue to be a powerhouse, they need to adapt to the progressive ideals most people have.
It sounds like all I’m doing is trashing the Catholic church which wasn’t my initial intention. I have so much respect for all religions and I think they are super interesting to study. I have however learned a lot while here and it wasn’t all positive. And while I don’t agree with the Catholic Church on a number of issues, I appreciate the rich history they provide. A huge recreational activity used to be going to church because that is where people could gather and socialize. Church is still used in that same way today, but from the 20th century and before, church was a huge communal gathering place. That is why so much history and beautiful art is housed in churches: so all their congregation could enjoy it. I visited one of the oldest churches in the world, the Pantheon and was amazed at the architecture and symbolism of the structure. And we visited other small churches and cathedrals in Siena and Florence until finally, I saw St. Peter’s Basilica. It felt like everything we had seen had led up to this moment. I could see aspects of the Pantheon and the huge cathedral in Florence in this basilica. So yes, I do think there are problems with the Catholic church but they are making strides towards inclusion. But I also think the basilica was the most beautiful, rich building I had ever been in. My hope is that there can be a merging of this new and old culture to create the perfect balance of history and new teachings.
About the Author
Lindsey is going to be a junior at CSU studying Finance and Supply Chain. Coming on a trip to Rome and learning about communication has been out of her comfort zone but she is so glad for all these experiences. She has loved visiting famous monuments at night (like the Pantheon when it was pouring down rain and lightning) and making new best friends. She is so grateful she got this opportunity and would recommend it to anyone!