What is a Lutheran Pastor doing in Rome?
From December 30 until January 6 I had the privilege of visiting Rome for the second time. My first visit was in August 2017 at the end of a long summer drought. I stayed in an apartment that gave me a short walk to St. Peter’s Square and the Tiber River, the main river going through Rome. I saw the ruins at the Roman Forum and the nearby Colosseum. I went on a tour of the Vatican gardens and took a train ride to see the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I ran a 5K race that really was a 4K race. Probably the nicest part of the visit was having seven days of sunshine and blue skies with afternoon temperatures in the 50s.
So why would a Lutheran pastor go to Rome, the city Martin Luther once described as, “If there is Hell, then Rome is built over it! It is a cesspit of sin.” Oddly enough, in 2015, Rome named a park after him, Piazza Martin Lutero. My interest in visiting stems from two sources, the Book of Acts in the New Testament and a more recent book, Basilica - The Splendor and The Scandal: Building St. Peter’s.
In the churches of Rome you often see paintings, frescoes and mosaics of St. Peter and St. Paul, particularly in the old churches. In the Book of Acts, Peter’s last mention is in chapter 12 when being released from prison in Jerusalem. Peter eventually arrived in Rome although not recorded in the Book of Acts. When Peter wrote his two New Testament letters he stated he was writing from Babylon, likely a code word for Rome. Paul is in chapter 28, the final chapter, where he is finally in Rome. Both men were killed for their faith in Rome with Peter crucified upside down, as traditionally viewed. Statues of Peter typically show him with two keys and statues of Paul typically show him with a sword.
Visiting Rome, you can see the early beginnings of the church there. The Church of St. Clement (San Clemente) has ruins going back to the first century A.D. You begin to see how the church grew slowly as the result of the work of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome as people became Christians and left their pagan beliefs behind. About three centuries after his death, Emperor Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica over part of the Circus of Nero, yes, the Nero who burned Rome and blamed the Christians. Constructing St. Peter’s Basilica over Nero’s building again showed the triumph of the church.
One thing a visitor notices in Rome is the sense that through history the church became the predominant force in history, particularly the church in Rome. Nowhere is the sense of power more visible than St. Peter’s Basilica. Reading the book while visiting allowed me to see the results of architects and workers who lived during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The construction occurred from 1506 through 1626 or 120 years. 120 years to construct a building? That much time is needed when you have the French attack Rome in 1527, popes who spend all the funds in the treasury (think Leo X who liked to spend money but also had to contend with the rebel Augustinian monk, Martin Luther), popes who lost interest in the construction activity, and architects who came and went.
Quickly reading and learning so much history about the basilica, I had to go inside the building and investigate. Upon entering the building you sense that it is larger than it appears on television. In the floor you begin to see the names of other cathedrals around the world such as St. Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Patrick’s in New York City, and the names identify their size in relation to St. Peter’s and how they would each fit inside the building.
Paintings are numerous and Michelangelo’s Pieta is popular. Views from the dome are amazing, if you are willing to walk up the 300+ stairs or take an elevator. The use of marble and paintings in the ceiling along with the famous altar present a place in which you see and hear people from around the world who have come to see the basilica.
So back to my original question, “What is a Lutheran Pastor doing in Rome?” While visiting so many different sites, I found myself thinking about the question, “What is the church?” The church is a unique entity in that the Holy Spirit, who is without sin, works among people, who are sinful, to create the church. Ultimately, the church consists of people who proclaim and teach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. Throughout the centuries, Christians have constructed different types of gathering places for sharing the Word and sacraments. Some old places have survived the centuries and others are only stone ruins. Yes, the theology practiced in these structures is different from ours, but that does not take away from the beauty you see people have created through the centuries. Seeing the church around the world is a reminder that we are a part of something large as St. John saw in his vision, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) As nice as it is to see church around the world, there is also the nice feeling you have with your own congregation. There is no place like home.
Pastor Michael Dorner