The Road to Rome

When I began this blog sixteen months ago, our family was on its way to Trent.  I wrote some of my first posts from the road as we visited friends, took in some sightseeing and prepared for a Wittenberg 2017 gathering. The theme I had in mind for this blog was one of pilgrimage - a broad theme indeed as our entire Christian life is a a journey. But now that our next trip to Europe  approaches, my thoughts return to the nature of pilgrimage.

How is pilgrimage different from vacation or adventure, sightseeing or a move? Each of these experiences involves a change in location, and because we are spiritual beings, any journey may leave its mark on our soul. Yet we have different words because we travel for many reasons.  Vacations celebrate abundance or work completed.  Sightseeing springs from human curiosity; adventure relieves our boredom or need for achievement.  In contrast, pilgrimage is an expression of spiritual poverty.  It requires both sacrifice and hope.

This trip to Rome feels sacrificial in a way I have never experienced.  Of course, all our trips to Europe have been costly - but also lots of fun. We've enjoyed  sightseeing, time with friends and some delicious pastries on our Wittenberg journeys.  This year is different.  Frankly, the excitement of travel has worn off.  I don't like airplanes.  I suffer from motion sickness.  I don't want to leave my children for two weeks - my youngest is already begging me to stay home.  But above all these small sacrifices looms the fact that I don't want to go to Rome.

Rome scares me in a way that is hard to articulate, in a way that is perhaps unbecoming to a good Catholic. In the past when  people asked me if I had ever visited the Vatican,  I responded jokingly that I feared Rome would be bad for my Catholicism.  There is more truth to that joke than I care to admit.  

Do not misunderstand. I love the treasures of the Catholic Church - its writings, art, and history. I am grateful for the role Rome has played in preserving the unity of Catholic doctrine and discipline.  I am rather in awe of the popes we have been blessed with in the past century, especially since Vatican II. They have been holy men with far-reaching influence.  But I know that has not always been the case.

What has been the case, for better and for worse, is that Rome is a seat of power. I am uncomfortable in the presence of power, pomp and ceremony. Chalk it up to my blue collar, small town, low church upbringing. Though I have been a Catholic for fifteen years now, I still feel mildly panicky at the thought of kissing anyone's ring, or even speaking to a bishop in his mitre. I retain many strong evangelical sensibilities, some of which I suspect are good, and others mere cultural bias.  In any case,  I hate ostentation, and I suspect that is hard to avoid in Rome.

But there is a deeper reason I fear Rome.  Our purpose in going there is to lament the dark periods of the papacy - the shepherds who did not tend the flock carefully, thus opening the doors for division.  The unwillingness of power to reform, to renounce its love of money and monument, had tragic consequences.  It pains me to look unflinchingly at the failures of my church, the Catholic church which I love so deeply.  And it pains me to consider the separation of my other church, the evangelicals who first taught me to love Jesus.  I feel like the child of two divorced parents, and like any child, I love them both.  I know that when I see Rome, I will love her more.  And I may feel angry.  I will certainly be grieved in a way I cannot ignore.

This is the sacrifice.  So what is the hope?

The hope is that Jesus loves my two churches, and the other Christian traditions, far more than I.  My hope is that prayer, fasting, humble and contrite hearts move heaven and earth.  My hope is that the Holy Spirit seems to be moving many hearts in these days to pray and work for unity.  And so I go to Rome, in my poverty.

In the next few weeks I hope to write some of what I will share in Rome, along with some text and stories that have shaped this particular journey.