Monday, December 13, 2010

Ecce Homo

Good morning God,
I'm trying to unpack some of what I witnessed and experienced at St. Peter's Basilica recently.. I need your help on this because at the moment I am deeply disturbed by my initial reactions.
I went to St Peter's to see - to witness - to experience the beauty and grandeur of the place. I went to pray, for healing and for hope for myself and for others.. but most of all - I went in search of answers, little realizing that what I was questioning would be so brutally laid bare. 

There was an annual thanksgiving and commemoration service for the Italian Air Force taking place in the heart of the Basilica on the day that I visited.The air was heavy with incense and gold glittered from every surface, sparkling in the lights illuminating the raised altar above St Peter's tomb. Inscribed in marble above our heads were the words and the language of those long since departed, reminding us of the solemnity and majesty of your actions and dealings with humanity - and everywhere Myrrh was present - scenting the statues of the dead, oiling the bodies of the embalmed and soaking into the bones of past Popes - all celebrating the powerful, centuries old message of the cult of death.

This was liturgy as I had never experienced it before: Here was the Church in all its pomp and power - dozens of priests and acolytes, cardinals in their brocaded costumes - all playing their part in the re-enactment of a murder , ready to offer, to those deemed worthy,  the opportunity to share in its spoils in order to preserve their own skins.

We were not allowed to join with those who were worshiping, we were excluded, cut off from the priests, denied access to the light - kept behind the barricades, only allowed to peer at the privileged as they engaged in their rituals.  And so we watched as tourists at another Vatican spectacle.

Whilst a big part of me died.

Here, laid bare, were all the lies I would rather not own up to about the Church...

  • The deep-rooted masculinity of the faith. I stood and witnessed the exclusive act of the Church at worship: a male collective worshiping a man re-imaged according to their own desires, overlooked by larger than life statues of men, and magnificent artwork celebrating and commemorating the glorious deeds of men - primarily the acts of either killing or dying
  • The cult of death, pain and suffering - the celebration and veneration of pain and anguish - whether of Christ - or of his saints. Not a single work of art, word or gesture that I saw at the Basilica was designed to celebrate life, sound joyous or evoke laughter and wonderment.
  • The blatant exclusivity of the Church. 
  • The power of the priests and their all too obvious disdain for the people. 
  • The obscene wealth on display compared to the great poverty of the majority of Church members..

Unexpectedly, at the end of the service, I was served the consecrated host without words, from a Gold cup, held by a Priest escorted by a guard who led him along in front of the barriers. I, and those with me at the front of the barricade were served as beggars might be served by a Lord with too many scraps from a table to dispose of by any other means. There was no grace in the giving, and I struggled to find grace in the receiving.

Ecce Homo

Behold the MAN...

But I couldn't find you there Lord - not in the host, nor later in prayer.
Your real presence  eluded me.
In spite of so many portraits, so many statues - I couldn't find you amongst the things that were created for your glory. Too much of it seemed simply an artistic orgy in celebration of death and dying. The greater your pain, the more accurate the portrayal of your agony - the more people liked it. It was as though the resurrection never happened, was not something to celebrate, as though there was no Good News - only the cry to repent or be damned.

I can, of course, rationalise my initial reaction much of the above. I can say that what I saw was not 'normal', that what I experienced was not 'typical', that the Church really is so much more inclusive, open and joyous - but that obviously the Vatican has to take things more seriously, has to have guards in order to take care of the treasures it has been given, has to be more careful, exclusive, authoritative - MALE?

All this I could say, but none of that helps me dispel the question - what am I doing associating myself with any part of this?


  1. I think if I'd been there I would have shared much of your feelings. I can remember walking out of a monastery in Europe a few years ago because I was offended by all the gold, statues, and arrogance of the men there,who did not like taking questions from a mere woman.
    But I think that your last post speaks much more about the reality of Christ in todays world and the work of his followers in every day life
    You wrote
    " I want to start each new year in the same way that the Bible starts its narrative - no - not with some mythical fall - but with the statement that You have made all things GOOD. That you are in the world and engaged with your creation, that in the fullness of time you expressed that belonging and being incarnationally to share with us the how and the wherefores of what we were created to be."
    This is why we celebrate this Christmas - Emmanuel !
    I hope you have a blessed and peaceful time.

  2. You are not "associated with" this. You are a Minister in a Protestant denomination. Be thankful for the Reformation.
    Methodist Preacher

  3. I totally understand where you are coming from, Angie, and I share many of the same feelings. I don't think I can distance myself from these issues by saying that this is only a Catholic matter.

    There are many Protestants who oppress women with far more damaging theologies than "tradition".

  4. As the Methodist Preacher rightly said Angie, You are not "associated with" this and I for one will ever be grateful that you are the most wonderful follower of the truth and a Methodist Minster

  5. Susan,
    Thank you for your comments, what worries me is how deep rooted all this is - and how it continues to shape and mold Christians into a belief that they are less than they are.

    David - Of COURSE I am associated with it - the Methodist Church in the UK is the longest standing Ecumenical Dialogue partner with the Roman Catholic Church. There were Methodists at the recent services celebrating(?!) the visit of the Pope to these lands. We are in a Covenant relationship with a Church that is in even closer relationships with Rome. We were signatories to the recent Roman /Lutheran joint declaration on Justification by faith (which 'resolved' the primary doctrinal dispute of the Reformation) Also, the unchurched do not think in terms of denomination, and as the largest of the Christian denominations - what the Roman Catholic Church does in the name of Christ is presumed to be what Christian's everywhere are supposed to do in the name of Christ.
    But - above all this - I am associated because I am a Christian, and by the grace of God this situation has been revealed to me and I care about it.
    Pam - I agree!
    Sybil - shucks.. thanks for the affirmation. x

  6. Angela,

    Your post saddens me. Christianity has many different traditions, I think you've looked at what you witnessed in ROme through your very own cultural perspective and church tradition and been too quick to hurl rocks at it.

    I was baptised an Anglican, educated by the Presbyterians and have spent time with CHristians of many different denominations and traditions. I am not a Roman Catholic but I have seen that for some and in certain circumstances, what us ANglicans call "high church" is an appropriate and worthy act of worship.

    Please don't be so judgemental.

    Logs and specks and all that.....

  7. Hello Mary,
    Thank you for your comment - I have wondered about the judgmental nature of what I write. I agree that I write from a particular cultural perspective, and you will find elsewhere on this blog many pertinent criticisms of it as well as praise and thanksgiving. Culture however is no excuse for abuse - and the exclusivity of what I witnessed was abusive. The veneration of pain and suffering and submission was and is abusive - not just to women of my culture - but to women everywhere as it is presented as being done in the name of God!
    I am familiar with high church Anglican worship - and recognise the need in some for the drama of the liturgy. But none of that comes close to the appalling exclusivity of what I witnessed in St Peter's.
    The question about sticks and stones is also important - so when do we say something is simply NOT acceptable?
    The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is built on the pennies of the poor and squandered on the excesses of a few which then masquerades as worship of Christ - MUST be challenged if you truly believe it to be a mockery of the faith. As my earlier comment states - I AM involved - I am a Christian and all this is being done in the name of the One who emptied himself of everything - in order to become everything for us.

  8. Thanks Angela.

    Coming from Sydney, the abuse I see comes from my Evangelical, reformed anglican brothers and sisters in Christ who teach that women have to obey their husbands and that women are secondary in God's created order. It makes the RC male dominated priesthood seem rather innocous by comparison.