Buon Natale!

Writing about Christmas in February (and it is still February!) is a pretty apt description of our life right now. But I am chucking seasonal appropriateness to the wind in the hopes of one day being able to write about something that didn’t happen two months ago.

We spent Christmas Eve at the Vatican, beginning with a tour of their expansive museums and ending with midnight mass in St. Peter’s square. Now there may not have been a practicing Catholic among us, but the experience was no less meaningful. Maybe it doesn’t count, but I am a big Papa Fransisco fan (Jesuits for the win!)

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Christmas at the center of Catholicism was a reorienting experience. Maybe because Jeff and I have been involved in (Protestant) youth ministry for most of my recent memory, but for me the celebration of Christmas is generally very child led, figuratively and literally. Christmas tree lightings and children’s pageants highlight the birth of the Christ child. It is simple, and humble, and may even sometimes be just a tad irreverent, and I love it. The Vatican is a Church, with a capital C and the pageantry of Christmas Mass is beautifully loaded with symbols and history and tradition, reminding us that Christmas fulfills centuries of anticipation of a messiah king.

Interfaith, inter-tradition work is something incredibly important to me, in part because it allows you the chance to see the other side of whatever line you fall on. I may never embrace the ritual unity of the Catholic Church, but I certainly can appreciate its richness. On Christmas Day, we stood in a crowd of people from all over the world a received a blessing from the Pope, and I cried. In a world where humanity is united in the name of very little, it was a beautiful thing to be a part of the masses, directed toward a single hope.

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Waiting for the Papa. For all of our connection to humanity, we also enjoyed hanging out in the back with more personal space. We were the first to leave the square. Only later did we find out that a topless woman at the front of the crowd, in protest of patriarchy, stormed the nativity scene and stole baby Jesus before being tackled by Roman police in capes. So you know that would have been different.

For good and for bad, It is difficult to leave the Vatican not impacted by the Power of the Catholic Church both past and present.

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The alter in preparation for the evening mass.

Rome was the center of Christendom, and standing beneath the Sistine Chapel, wandering through a life time of art, you can’t help but be reminded of the important role Catholicism has played in shaping culture and politics.

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For the last year, Jeff’s Rafael’s “School of Athens” has graced Jeff’s iphone case. This was a reunion of sorts. Our tour guide found it hilarious. This case has since broken and has been replaced with the Last Supper.

Obviously, the whole experience was wonderful and I wouldn’t have really changed a thing, so I share this mostly because it is funny. When we first began talking about Christmas in Rome, I put our names into a lottery to get tickets to the Mass inside the Basilica. We were not successful, no big deal. We would happily watch on the screens in the square with the rest of Rome. A week before we left, a long time family friend Father Mike, called in a favor with a priest who works in the Vatican and got us tickets. We were ecstatic. On Christmas Eve we got to approach the Swiss guards, who take their job very seriously to collect our tickets.While waiting in line, I made friends with a group of 15 from Switzerland who had received their their email confirmation only that morning. I shared the info Father Mike had given us about arrival time (really early) and prime seating (close to the aisle), and we approached the guards together. When their tickets couldn’t be found and the guards had sent them away, the group’s matriarch reapproached and basically scolded the guards until the tickets appeared.

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We arrived later that evening hours before the mass was to start to a line that wrapped all over the square. Long story short, but the Basilica reached capacity about 20 people before we were to enter, with thousands of people behind us. The tickets are free and they give out more than they can hold to account for no shows, but Papa Fransisco is a popular guy. Again, given the fact that we aren’t Catholic, it was very easy to brush off our disappointment.  We were happy that our seats most likely went to people for who this experience would be much more spiritually significant. Later, after emailing with our Swiss friends to exchange a few pictures, we discovered that they had arrived the same time we did. Their matriarch seeing what was to come marched right up the the Swiss guard and demanded to be let in, and it worked! Squeaky wheels 🙂

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We still had a great time!

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