I recently returned from a weekend trip to Rome with my oldest daughter. With my university degree in history emphasizing the Greco-Roman world, Rome has always been a sort of a Mecca to me. I knew I would go there one day. However, because of my recent religious literacy goals, I found something unexpected drawing me to the eternal city; Catholicism.
Growing up Christian, I was somewhat aware of the role Rome played in my religious history, but coming from outside the catholic tradition I felt very little connection to the Pope or the Vatican. To be truthful, I would have to say I feared and distrusted most things “Catholic” due in great part to my ignorance and prejudices. (I hope to write more on this later)
Now, empowered by positive interfaith interactions and with a personal desire to gather faith from all religious traditions, I touched down in Rome with genuine excitement to visit the Holy See and be inspired by Catholicism.
There was so much to take in as we walked past the high marble pillars of St. Peters’ Basilica, the largest church in the world. I told my husband that it made the opulent palace of Versailles pale in comparison. Built by perhaps the three greatest architects of their time, Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini all had a hand in designing this incredible building.
I was struck by the symbolism built into the very foundation of this church. The outer plaza with it’s two semicircular colonnades were intended by Bernini to symbolize the arms of the church reaching out to welcome you. The basilica itself designed in the form of the cross features an incredible dome rising a full football field high over the intersection of the cross.
As I walked through the church explaining to my daughter this symbolic blueprint and as we admired the many sculptures, paintings, and decorations, the symbolism of the cross stood out again and again. To me the message was clear, if you want to understand Catholics you need to understand the cross.
I have a memory of an incident that happened at my church when I was a child. A woman, most likely a visitor or new convert, was wearing a gold cross necklace. There was a conversation (hopefully not within earshot of the woman) about how that jewelry was not very appropriate at our church. I was young and don’t remember many details, but what stuck with me was a negative association with the cross.
It is ironic that the lack of the cross on the buildings and on the members of my church has produced a similar negative reaction among fellow Christians. For this and other reasons, many are hesitant to acknowledge our “Christian-ness”.
Symbols like the cross can have this effect. They can be unifying and yet divisive if not understood. This past year as I have studied Catholicism and other world religions, I am recognizing that the most important thing about a religious symbol is finding out what it means to the person of that faith. We must see it through their eyes. For example, the swastika, a symbol which to many conveys feelings of hate and fear, to a practicing Hindu represents peace and good fortune. To understand and better appreciate Hinduism, I need to see this symbol through their eyes.
As I wandered through St. Peter’s Basilica and the many other churches we visited in Rome, I saw people praying and worshiping at the foot of the cross. I saw them crossing themselves as they entered sacred places. To them the cross is a beautifully complex symbol that yes, represents the death of Jesus, but more importantly signals His triumph over death and His power to redeem us as well.
Current Pope Francis said last April in a morning meditation service, “But what is the Cross for us? It is the sign of Christians; it is the symbol of Christians.” He went on to say, “Salvation comes only from the cross, from this cross where God was made flesh. There is no salvation in ideas; there is no salvation in good will, in wanting to be good. No! The only salvation is in Christ crucified because only he — like the bronze serpent — was able to take upon himself the poison of our sin and heal us,” 1
I also really loved this quote by Mother Claudia of the Tyburn Convent:
“The physical symbol of the cross – there’s a vertical coming down from heaven, entering into the earth, implanted in the earth. There’s the horizontal, the human, crossing the vertical, crossing the divine.
If you take away one of those parts, the vertical – there’s no cross. If you take away the horizontal – there’s no cross.
So it’s the fusion, the union of those two aspects – the divine and the human – that gives the cross its power and its significance and its meaning; that God is always with us and He’s particularly with us in our sufferings, in our cross. And he cannot and will not separate Himself from us in our sufferings – he’s always there to help us and console us, give us the strength to go on.
So it is a great symbol of hope in that way. You can look up at the cross and see the vertical, and keep going up to God, to Heaven.”
That day in the Vatican, I was able to appreciate what the sign of the cross meant to their faith and allow myself to share those reverent feelings as well. I feel closer to my Catholic friends and neighbors and to all the cross wearing Christians around the world because I took the time to see this important symbol through their eyes. I had to leave the Vatican and beautiful Rome behind, but I hope I never forget the understanding and faith I gathered there.