The first time I went to the Vatican, I didn’t get in. I turned up just as they were closing. The second time, a year later, I missed again, once again cutting it too close. I have a chronic lateness problem. But 20 years later, before the pandemic, on a typically insufferably hot Roman day, under an eye-wateringly blue sky, I arrived at the visitor entrance at a quarter to nine in the morning, before it opened, to finally make it inside.
I am a practicing Catholic, sometimes generously mistaken for a devout one, and believe me it is a mistake, which means, in a wonderfully general way, that I go to mass regularly, know and respect the covenants of the faith but break some of the commandments and might break more of the rest if those things weren’t against my own moral code, which I have to admit is not telephone-book thick. I’m also that awkward kind of Catholic, somewhere between orthodox and unorthodox, who over the years has come to separate the formalities and obligations of the Church from my belief in God.
But the Vatican is the epicenter, spiritually and physically, of an unwavering Catholic orthodoxy. There is not a stray molecule of ambiguity in the place and the introduction of any would be deemed about as welcome as the introduction of Ebola. The great irony of our religion is that its essence is the notion of free will, but the Church has condemned all unapproved choices.
The Vatican is also the world’s greatest museum. In fact it’s a museum of museums. I swear they have museums they’ve lost, like you or I might lose keys. When I was there, someone from the press office, looking to take me to the Sistine Chapel by a shortcut, stumbled across a vast plain of a hall, part of which was shut to the public and to the side of which was a wide stairway leading down to a semi-dark floor that we took a quick digression to. It was a great room filled with Chinese antiquities, marble lions and statues and tall-as-a-person vases, some millennia old. These priceless works of art and invaluable markers of history were given as gifts to various Popes over the centuries, and sometimes perhaps not so willingly given. My guide muttered “oh” in recognition, as if she was glad she’d found those.
The Vatican is curiously sterile. Not Switzerland sterile, but more like a newly opened, too evenly-lit supermarket. In the Vatican’s museums and public spaces a ponderous silence carries fragments of visitors’ conversations like dust on a beam of pallid sunlight. A lifeless reverence wafts through halls that now chronicle the history they once made, halls wallpapered with the world’s greatest art collection. Even the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica, breathtaking when first seen upon approach, overwhelming when entered, is also strangely bereft of spirituality, the one thing you might expect it to ooze. Its awesome marble statues and serene, gold-laced caskets of popes and saints and huge, brilliantly rich paintings of biblical scenes and figures, are polished and illuminated to advantage. The giant cupola is so high above the ground that the sunlight is weak by the time it hits the floor, with the effect of washing the Basilica in a pale, sober, blue-gray light.
Somberly, dozens of dark-suited security men vet the crowd going in and keep a vigilant eye on them inside. About a third of the way into the Basilica a bronze line on the ground indicates where London’s St. Paul’s (Church of England) Cathedral would end if it were placed inside St. Peter’s, a piece of hubris the Vatican apparently couldn’t resist. An evening mass takes place with all the passion of an art installation projection: you see it, it’s engaging, it might even be riveting, but, improbably, you don’t feel it. And scattered – or perhaps strategically placed – about the vast plains of the Basilica are confessionals where priests hear sins in just about every major language. But, despite warnings that for a devout Catholic entering St. Peter’s can precipitate a profound religious experience, for me the overall effect was of a giant arena with the seats removed. (The missing pews are returned for masses celebrated by the Pope.) It’s as if God, like Elvis, has left the building.
But the Vatican is more than a place, which is both its glory and its impossible burden. It has physical buildings but metaphysical powers: as the seat of government for the Catholic Church as well as its holiest site the Vatican dictates every minute detail of religious observance with the same absolutism and perhaps more intimate effectiveness that the Soviets once controlled communism. The world’s smallest country is arguably its most powerful.
The Vatican sits on 440,000 square meters of possibly the world’s most expensive real estate, in the center of Rome. It is approximately two thirds the size of the U.S. Capital and would get lost several times over in New York’s Central Park. This is a bit of a comedown from the past when it was Rome that sat in the middle of the Vatican’s empire: the current shrunken state is the result of land (and influence) recaptured as Italy unified and ultimately, in the late 19th century, took Rome back too. In 1929 Mussolini signed a treaty with the Pope defining the Vatican and, essentially and literally, putting it in its place.
It has its own postage stamps, but no military, which is less important as the standard for being a country. There are borders but not what you’d call rigorous border security – you enter the Vatican by crossing certain streets, although official buildings are inaccessible to the public. The famous Swiss Guard, who number an elite less than 100 and vow to be celibate while serving their two year terms, are responsible for internal security and guarding the Pope. Their yellow, red and blue striped pants and blouses, matching calf length boots and jaunty felt hats and shiny armor tops and red plumed armor helmets for ceremonial occasions look like Versace Couture with a hint of an S&M theme, but in fact were designed by the original gay Italian designer, Michelangelo. The Swiss Guards were formed after Swiss mercenaries saved the life of Pope Julius 11 in 1506, dying in the process. Ever since, only members of the Swiss Army are allowed to be part of the Guards, and only males.
The population of the Vatican is, according to a 2019 census, 825 people. This is likely to be accurate as it could only have taken a couple of hours to count them all again, just to make sure. Enigmatically, this represented a quarter of a percent decline in population growth year over year. Even in a place as intimate with miracles as this, any previous growth would be remarkable in a land where all the adults are celibate.
The country is entirely supported by donations from Catholics around the world, tourism, and whatever they make from the rather ungodly and vaguely referred to business of “worldwide banking and financial activities.” The Vatican passport is the hardest in the world to get and therefore presumably the coolest. No one I know has ever seen one. The Vatican officially claims only one national holiday, the Pope’s Coronation Day, but that’s probably because Christmas and Easter are sort of givens. The Pope, elected for life by the College of Cardinals, is the autonomous Head of State and pretty much holds the ultimate diplomatic immunity, considering who he reports to. It is a little known fact that any Catholic who could be ordained can be voted Pope. The Church’s chosen leader is supposed to be whomever the Cardinals are moved by the Holy Spirit to believe would be best, not necessarily just each other, although, in reality, they only ever vote one of their own and, until selecting John Paul II, who was Polish, no-one but Italians since the 1500s. Since John Paul II, though, the Italians can’t even get a sniff of the job.
And not many people realize this, including, I discovered, the participants, but the Vatican and Sweden are at war. Several hundred years ago over some affront or other, Sweden declared war on the Vatican and it has still, officially, never been resolved.
When I offered to a bemused Vatican official to mediate a peace agreement, she regarded me uneasily and looked as if she privately doubted the wisdom of their letting me in.
I was raised a Catholic, sort of, in the sense that my father, having given me his full name and ethnic heritage and, he presumed, everything else worthwhile, decided he might as well throw in his religion, which was then like an old sweater he didn’t wear any more. I don’t mean this cynically, he personally had no use for religion but meant well: he knew it was a good influence and that in England in the 1960s Catholic schools gave better education than regular schools and were far stricter. At 11 I became an altar boy, by accident – I thought I was joining the Church soccer team. An hour into the indoctrination I was still oblivious and when the priest passed a saint’s relic (a finger) amongst us to each kiss I thought boy, they must really take winning seriously! But no balls appeared and I was getting a little antsy so I asked the priest when did we start practicing and where exactly was the field? He looked at me with a disgust that seemed to be evenly divided between my obvious idiocy and his mistake at accepting me.
Nonetheless I became a diligent, devoted and finally record-setting altar boy, serving so many masses a week that I was eventually told I needn’t come quite as much. I was virtually trolling the Sacristy, looking for priests who might be about to say mass. In my early teens I shook off Catholicism like rainwater and thought no more about it until my late twenties when one day I walked into a church to pray privately, found there was a mass going on and stayed for it and reconnected. More importantly I chose it, voluntarily, and realized that nothing I’d ever felt about or from it had ever left me. I picked up where I left off, like a great book put down, only in this case fifteen years before. A couple of years later I went to confession – the most profound and humbling act a Catholic can perform in one’s faith, where you tell a complete stranger everything that you’ve spent most of your energy lying to everyone else about, and started with the required admission: “forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been about 17 years since…“ but he stopped me, saying: “you don’t have to tell me how long it’s been, we haven’t said that for 13 years.”
Around that time I started SPIN, the music magazine that though not dedicated solely to hedonism, was open to the argument that it was not altogether a bad idea. When people found out that I was an active churchgoer they were invariably shocked. Which, in the beginning, shocked me, until I realized that I wasn’t fitting either stereotype, rock ‘n roll editor or religious person. I was both. More accurately, I was striving to be either in any kind of meaningful way.
Since the time my father first dropped me off at Catholic school he started Penthouse and built it into one of the world’s largest privately-held magazine empires. For 30 years he was a lightning rod for religious extremists, which served to both add to my father’s allure and success and serve as an evergreen funds raiser for the extremists. One Sunday in the early 80s, I stopped by his house in Manhattan and he asked me where I was coming from. I told him I had just been to Mass and he said: “that’s good, one of us has to go.” He sounded not quite sad but resigned, like a man suddenly remembering a land long ago left.
“Faith is not meant to replace reason, but is for those things which reason cannot explain,” said St. Thomas Aquinas. The price of admission for any religion, faith is a particularly exercised requirement in Christianity, where we believers receive our instructions in riddles – Christ’s parables – and must suspend our actual beliefs to accept the miracle of virgin birth, the ecclesiastic value pack of a three-in-one Divinity, and the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. This last occurrence we are implored to accept not as a failure but a triumph, in fact the most gloriously triumphant event since the Creation and the only thing that makes our lives worth more than the dust we’ll be trampled back into. Even Christ had to think twice about this before agreeing to go along, and even the Church concedes this wasn’t such a massive success at first since, seriously, only about four people bought into it and most of the apostles’ initial reaction was to clear out their lockers and call it a season, so to speak. Normally when your man gets killed you chalk it up as a defeat. But in what may be the very first, and ultimate, case of political spin, the nascent Church celebrated Christ’s crucifixion, and still does, as the point of his life and the emphatic, celestial seal on God’s proclamation that He so loved us He sent us His only son and let him get creamed.
As you know, that caught on and that brings us back to the Vatican. There is a great, all important, all too often ignored or unrealized difference between the ineffable value and emotional nourishment of the faith and the human-scale grandness of the Church. As I walked through the Vatican’s spectacularly beautiful halls and gardens, I didn’t get as much a sense of the glory of God as the glorification of the planet’s alpha Church. There have been many world-shaping empires in history but none had the run the Catholic Church did. The magnificent, priceless art and precious objects on the walls, in cabinets and even on the ceilings do not in my mind honor the humble Christ as much as they flatter the vanity of the flawed institution.
So let’s leave the Vatican and arrive on a backstreet of Palermo, Sicily, where, on a pole, behind glass, lit by three electric candles, is an icon of the face of Christ in his agony. The street is dark, soundless, still, and Christ is frozen in eternal suffering and mystery, and you realize it is the preservation of mystery, not answers, that allows us to live with our imperfections and fears.
And now come with me to New York where I went to a black tie dinner as the guest of a friend of mine who was receiving an award from, coincidentally, the same small but international Pontifical Order, the Oratory, whose church in England I had served as an altar boy thirty five years before. One of the honorees that night was Pulitzer Prize winning composer Norman Dello Joio, at the time very old and helped to the podium and back by a companion. At the end of the evening the affair’s host, Father Dennis Corrado, said that instead of closing with the traditional benediction he would play a recording of the Brooklyn Oratory Men’s choir singing a poem written by the U.S. Oratory’s founder, Cardinal Newman, which had been set to music by Dello Joio. As their unfathomably beautiful song filled the room, the voices floating above us like those of Angels, I watched the old composer bent forward, hunched over his cane, listening to and transported by the music, suddenly ageless and weightless, and I was filled with immense emotion.
Tell me there is no God. No, save your breath.