A reporter looks for Jesus in Rome

  • March 7, 2013

Catholic Register Associate Editor Michael Swan filed this report while on his way to Rome to cover the conclave to elect a new pope.

I haven't always been convinced Rome is important, religiously I mean.

I know it is one of the great cities of Europe. When I studied Latin in high school I thought of it as the setting for Cicero's speeches, Catullus's dirty poems and the target of Hannibal's fantastic, elephant-driven campaign to conquer Europe. As a teenager, up late Friday night watching forbidden television, I learned about post-war Rome as the carnival setting of Fellini's movies.

But religiously, as a pilgrimage destination, I was unmoved. The city may well contain a vast inventory of Church architecture, frescoes and sculpture, but it seemed to me the goal of a pilgrimage is to draw nearer to Jesus, not to tour through various accomplishments of the Medieval and Renaissance Church. I did not believe that the Church is the destination for any genuinely religious journey.

The Church is a means to an end. It should not be mistaken for the end. The proper end of Christian pilgrims is Christ. And Pope Benedict XVI has just reminded us we are all pilgrims, even to those last few steps.

Jesus was never in Rome. Rome is home to a huge chunk of Church history — but thought of it as a history of the means and not the end.

My prejudice was in favour of Jerusalem. That's the city at the end of all of Jesus' journeys. The Galilean trekked there in defiance of Romans, religious elites and the bandits. He dragged his family back there so he could spend more time in the temple as a 12-year-old. He carted his bewildered Apostles there over and over, until Pilate, Herod, the scribes and the Pharisees all decided it was in some way too dangerous to allow him to go back to Galilee one more time.

A few years ago I finally got to go to Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Holy Land remains engulfed in obscure, irrational politics that do not exclude scenarios for the end of the world. It revealed Jesus in both an historical and a contemporary context, neither of which can be explained by journalism.

The interesting thing was how that experience of Jesus could not be separated from an experience of the Church. Without going to Mass in German with Benedictine monks on the shore of Lake Tiberius, I wouldn't have had the same experience of Jesus. Without reading the Bible — the Bible assembled, translated, lived and explained by the Church — in a hotel room in Tel Aviv while Israelis prowled the beach outside under the gaze of Uzi-toting teenage soldiers, it wouldn't have been such an irreplaceable experience of Jesus. Without seeing a cross carved into an alcove in the Roman baths at Herculaneum, a little trace that the Church was there in the first century after Jesus hung on His cross, I would not have drawn as close to Jesus on that trip.

So, my long-held prejudice against Rome turned out to be based on an artificial, insupportable separation of means and ends. The Church, after all, is the body of Christ and there is no getting to the end of a pilgrimage without a road to get you there. I went looking for Jesus in Jerusalem and found Him in the Church.

Going now to Rome, I'm still a reporter looking for Jesus.

A Catholic Register Special Feature - Pope Benedict XVI steps down

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