Vatican City – OR – How do you explain Pope Pius XII to a Jew whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust?

“I’m taking you to Catholic Sin City,” Seth says as we wind our way with the Tiber. Today is Vatican City day.

I apologize with “excuse me, Sister” rather than “excuse me” as we weave between the ambling Sisters of Charity (some habits die hard), stopping at the corner with three collared priests who shift and huff waiting for the light to change. Two lose the virtue of patience and traipse across despite a red pedestrian light. “Truly men of God,” I say to Seth. “They don’t fear Italian drivers.”

A Jew and a lapsed Catholic walk into St. Peter’s Square. Everything is bigger and grander in Rome. This place? Probably too spacious for a Beyonce featuring U2 concert. Enough statues for each strip mall in LA. Yosemite-sized national forest of marble colonnades.

You are small. You are mortal. You are a prisoner of sin. But the builders of St. Peter’s Square conquered a Roman city of the dead. At its center, a 4,000 year old Egyptian obelisk. A flying angel looking down at the outline would see the keyhole to Heaven, its keys resting in the hands of Peter’s likeness on the left front of the square… as well as in every papal crest, tomb and sewer grate throughout Vatican City. Authority subjugates the eternal here. You are small. You are mortal. You are quite impressed.

“Wanna make out in Vatican City?”


We have just enough time until our 2:15 English tour of St. Peter’s Basilica for the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and a huge plate of spaghetti carbonara at Romeo’s, a nearby place Lonely Planet assures me real Italians love. It is delicious.

2:15 and we’re the only non-priests near the meeting place for the tour. I ask the information booth attendant if we’ve missed something. She points back at the priests, who are covered neck to toes in black with that signature square of white at the Adam’s apple.

“I guess this is it,” our first priest says. “I’m Joseph, and this is Michael.” Ah, priests in training. Joseph, from D.C., and Michael, a Canadian, are introverted, slightly pudgy history nerds studying priestlyness at the Pontifical North American College. I instantly like them both. They tell us about their lives in Rome as we line up for the basilica. I learn that many country or region specific colleges for seminarians exist throughout Rome, and the Irish students are currently pissed that the North American team has beaten everyone in soccer for the past two years.

“The security process is a joke,” Michael nods at the upcoming metal detector and guards between two white columns. “They don’t even look at the screen.”

“Italian police are the best dressed,” I observe. “That white belt at the waist. Such style.”

We enter St. Peter’s Basilica and… I’ll pause here to discuss my vocabulary choices: I often feast on a poor word diet despite the availability of meatier cuts, or I resort to hyperbole. But after much thought, I cannot do better than to say, “we gasp” when entering the basilica. We are awe-struck. It is, in fact, awesome. The full meaning of the Word.

“Oh my god!” I say before quickly apologizing to Joseph for saying “Oh my god!” in front of him. He gives me a co-conspirators’ smile.

You could stack two upright NASA shuttles nose to nose under the dome and they wouldn’t even scratch the paint, Joseph says. If you turned on a garden hose and let it run, it would take 60 years for water to fill the entirety of the basilica. “I don’t know which bored mathematician came up with these statistics,” he says.

In Gothic Cathedrals like Notre Dame, you raise your head looking for God’s. In this baroque basilica, the builders brought heaven down to earth, and decorated with enough gold and marble and mosaics to bribe an archangel. “It’s even bigger than it looks,” Michael says. “The basilica uses forced perspective so that you’re not completely overwhelmed.”

“Michael, I am completely overwhelmed,” I say.

Our tour begins at the baptismal font.

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The top: fully bronze. The (maroon) bottom: previously, this was the top of Hadrian’s funeral urn, which is not nearly as morbid as seeing the corpses of popes past displayed behind glass throughout the basilica.

You think I am joking.

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Here lies Pope John XXIII (died 1963). Michael tells us he is a favorite with little old Italian ladies who come daily, rosaries in hand, to pray by his side. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and have seen body part relics before so, you know, this isn’t exactly strange to me.

“Okay, that’s weird,” Seth says.

“Your people have a ceremony for cutting off penis skin,” I say.

“We don’t keep it around to show off after the fact.”

The Vatican sets off all sorts of religious nerves for us both. Neither of us belongs here as worshipers. Seth rolls his eyes during the Sistine Chapel audio tour when the British voice preaches that Christians replaced Jews as God’s people, and I search in vain for art that features at least one powerful woman who might counter the rows of dead white men.

Here’s a statue of one such man, a former pope; the format – two women flanking a sitting pope – is common throughout the basilica. Michael explains: Each woman symbolizes a virtue that particular pope had. In this statue, the virtue holding the sword on the right is fortitude, for instance. Unlike the other massive marble pope statues, this pope holds the papal tiara – in real life encrusted with gold, sapphires, rubies –  on his lap rather than on his head to emphasize his, yes, humbleness.

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Holy heebie jeebies aside, we enjoy our time walking around with Michael and Joseph, who I’m starting to feel would make great Trivia Night teammates. Our routine involves Michael or Joseph introducing an art piece, Seth showing off his Hebrew skills trying to translate whatever letters are apparent, and me recalling every Catholic school lesson to Seth such as what a monstrance does.

We also hear delightful basilica secrets from our two guides. These doors actually just lead to a janitor’s closet.

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“No way.”

“No, seriously. I saw the doors open once and there are just brooms and mops in there,” Michael swears.

We turn and come to Joseph’s favorite piece in the entire Basilica: the Altar of the Lie, or just “The Lie.” The two-story brilliant mosaic retells an Acts of the Apostles story of a couple who lied to St. Peter about withholding money from the community. As soon as they spoke the lie, each fell down dead. The altar stands across from the doorway where priests enter before performing any ceremony within the basilica.

“It’s meant to remind you that you should ask yourself if you’re really giving your all. Are you really giving everything to the church?” Joseph says.

“Right and more literally with it being called ‘The Lie’ I’m sure it’s also a good reminder to practice what you preach,” I add. “Making sure you’re not a hypocrite.”

“Right, exactly,” he says.

We loop around to several more marble altars and blue-tiled mosaics and chiseled Bernini masterpieces, each more stunning than the last, each a prize collection piece anywhere else in the world, but here, just another wall hanging you might stare at during a boring homily. Pope memorabilia, particularly featuring Peter, stands high above us, a reminder of papal infallibility and power throughout kingdoms, empires, and time.

Finally, across the basilica and next to Michelangelo’s Pieta (now behind glass due to a previous hammer-attack on it by someone who thought he was Jesus), we observe the resting place of Pope John Paul II, the pope of my childhood. I’m excited despite myself because I saw pictures of this man whenever I was sent to the school office, and he isn’t Benedict XVI.

“And, um, here,” Michael flits his eyes between the statue and Seth. “Next to Pope John Paul the Second is the statue of Pope Pius the Twelfth, the pope during World War Two.”

Seth stands rigid as he locks eye contact with Michael. I stare at the statue. Joseph finds an interesting piece of marble wall to study intently. Michael’s tour guide training either utterly fails him or saves him, and he rote recites what I assume is only half the speech about Pope Pius XII’s difficult decisions, and relative silence, during Hitler’s reign. He does not share the history of official papal antisemitism pre-WWII, including the 1555 papal decree that lasted until the end of the Papal States in 1870 which banned Jews from living in every area of Rome except an overly packed ghetto, locked from the outside at night. Nor does he mention that in order to maintain the “privilege” of living in this ghetto, each year the Rabbi had to let the chief of Rome’s city councilors literally kick him in the ass. I do not know if Michael’s ever explained the Holocaust to a Jew before, and I can only assume all four of us silently want him to wrap this up quickly.

“History has, um, been unkind to Pope Pius the Twelfth,” he says. He describes the modern statue’s symbolism. “You see his cape is closed and maybe you might ask, ‘Why is his cape closed?’ It’s because of what he was hiding, um, he was hiding many Jews here in Rome.”

Eventually, he flubs something along the lines of, “He did what he could.”

We’re in Europe for six weeks total. If timing works out, I’ll be able to meet my blood relatives in Armagh, North Ireland. We will not be meeting any of Seth’s blood relatives.

Seth slightly nods his head to signify that he’s heard Michael, and we walk on. The air returns to the basilica. We return to being friends.

I don’t ask Joseph, but I ask myself, “I wonder what answer Pius would have for Peter. Did he give his all? Did he think he gave his all?”

The tour lasts a few minutes longer, and when we part ways with Joseph and Michael, it’s with sincere thanks. We wish them luck with their studies and future tours.

Outside the basilica, I ask Seth, “So, do you have any increased appreciation for Christianity after seeing the basilica?”

“After visiting the basilica? No.”

“Why? That was incredible,” I ask. I’m certainly more appreciative.

“After seeing the Sistine Chapel – absolutely I have a greater appreciation. That was true art. That was art for the sake of art and wasn’t forcing one narrative, you could interpret your own story. It was moving. You didn’t need to be Christian to understand or enjoy. I felt like that art respected me and I could respect that art.

“The basilica… that art didn’t respect you. That art made you subservient to the pope, not God. I saw a whole lot of pope statues in there. I didn’t see much of Jesus. Did you?”

I admit I did not.

“That was a temple to the popes. Not a temple to God,” Seth says.

I think about Seth’s meaning, and about the failure of leadership. About the popes’ treatment of the Jews. About abuse of religious power. About how the holiest relic in the basilica are the bones of Peter, not something of Jesus’s or about being a better human being. I think about whether the art just tells us to be more subservient Christians. I think about this city where there’s still an area of town referred to as ‘The Jewish Ghetto.’

Coming from a Catholic household, I can’t figure out how I can apologize for Pius and the greed of the popes, or how any Catholic could. He doesn’t get a pass for being “infallible,” and I think that concept is utter rubbish anyway. It’s counter to everything important I learned from my family. Pius saved his city, his power, and his own skin by giving a piece of his all. But would it have been any different had he spoken loudly and unambiguously against the Holocaust? Was what he did truly enough? A brutal but effective calculation of war? I don’t know how to explain Pope Pius XII. I don’t think Michael knows either. I don’t know who does.

Seth and I spent our day in Vatican City walking past the marble and mosaic ghosts of martyrs, those who looked up to heaven with pained but proud expressions as they died. They gave their all, and their humanity shook me. They gave everything because they believed in a better world where the Beatitudes mattered. Where all men and women are equal and loved because they are made in God’s image.

But I read somewhere that living for your beliefs takes more courage than dying for them. Did Pius not have enough courage to live his convictions? To feel what it means for a man to stand up?

My thoughts are with Joseph and the Altar of the Lie. When he sees it, I wonder, does he ask himself, “Is this worth dying for?” or does he ask, “Is this worth living for?”

2 Responses to “Vatican City – OR – How do you explain Pope Pius XII to a Jew whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust?”
  1. Hamish says:

    Great post K. I know exactly what Seth means about the basilica. I always say that I find it simultaneously inspiring and depressing.

    Inspiring in that it shows what amazing things humans can create (especially in a pre-industrial world) when they work together.

    Depressing in that it shows the hypocrisy of a church that claims to embrace charity and modesty on the part of its clerics. It always makes me wonder how many people’s suffering could have been alleviated if the church had used the enormous monies on its followers instead of building a giant palace for its executives.

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