Religion in the twenty-first century West—when it is practiced at all—is more and more marked by two interlocking qualities: splintering and subjectivity.
The major religions have splintered into various denominations; those denominations have further splintered into sub-denominations; the sub-denominations have splintered into different branches, factions, and expressions; and so on. This splintering has sharpened—and been sharpened by—the Enlightenment emphasis on the autonomous individual, which tends to relegate religious truth to a subjective choice and religious faith to subjective experience.
Today, the choices are multiplied—and the chooser magnified—like never before. And yet many young people are opting out of religion entirely for a new age syncretism of spiritualities, or (more and more the case) simply opting out of spirituality altogether.
This is precisely why the Roman Catholic Church continues to captivate, mystify, and allure so many people, even (and especially) today. Against this backdrop, Catholicism just looks…strange. I recently came to see this aspect of the Church in a whole new light after visiting Rome for the first time and seeing two of its many churches: the Basilica of St. Peter and the Basilica of St. Sabina.
Like many Catholics, I’ve seen images of St. Peter’s Basilica throughout my life. But I never really imagined I would ever go there or what it might be like. Shortly after arriving in Rome, I set out on foot with our filmmaker Manny Marquez to St. Peter’s Square, and what I realized very quickly was that its size and scope far exceeded anything I had ever pictured. It’s a vast, wide open space, a kind of cobblestone valley bordered by Bernini’s colonnades and pulled slightly uphill—as if by a kind of gravitation field—toward the mountainous, ornate façade of the basilica. But as overwhelming as the square was, it paled in comparison to the interior of the church, which I saw a few days later. It was hard to accept that fallen human minds and hands were responsible for such sprawling grandeur; it looked more like the handiwork of angels or aliens. The size alone is dizzying, but every square inch of it also radiates design, intelligibility, beauty, and power. It was an impossibly big and beautiful proclamation; and yet there it was, the whole thing consecrated to God for his glory. I stood in amazement with our producer Joseph Gloor, and our amazement quickly gave way to pride. It wasn’t a triumphalistic pride that looks down at other faiths, but a humbled pride that looks up with great love at this faith.
St. Peter’s is not a subjective matter. It’s not an inner perspective or feeling that one can grasp, turn over in the mind, and take or leave. Instead, it’s more like Jean-Luc Marion’s “saturated phenomenon”: something so vast and visible and “given” that it seizes the mind trying to frame it. It is an incarnate reality—a particular church, in a particular city, with a particular history—and it is unabashedly and stubbornly there: a big, bold, beautiful display that is impossible to miss or ignore.
Between my visits to St. Peter’s, I saw the Basilica of St. Sabina, the spiritual home of the Dominican order. The original church was built in the fifth century, toward the end of St. Augustine’s life and about fifty years before the fall of the Roman Empire. Like St. Peter’s, the basilica underwent renovations around the sixteenth century, but unlike St. Peter’s, it still bore the marks of its age. There were half-crumbled walls, faded frescos, and even some elements of the original building, including a wooden door of the Church with one of the earliest known depictions of the Crucifixion. The basilica also had an austerity and serenity about it—a far cry from the ornate and crowded St. Peter’s. As I walked toward the altar, our CEO Fr. Steve Grunow—probably noticing the awe on my face—gave me a knowing look and summarized the place in two words: “Ancient. Simple.” It was like a time portal right into the era of the Church Fathers.
And yet it still looked and felt Catholic. Where St. Peter’s conveyed the dense objectivity of our faith, St. Sabina’s conveyed its unity down through history. Catholicism is finally rooted not in Renaissance extravagance or medieval Scholasticism, but in the Scripture and Tradition of the earliest centuries of Christianity. John Henry Newman famously remarked that to be to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant—precisely because to be deep in Christian history is to be deep in Catholic history. And while Catholic doctrine has certainly developed down the ages (another famous observation of Newman’s), its fundamentals have remained the same. This isn’t a faith that splinters under the weight of political, social, cultural, moral, spiritual, or intellectual shifts; it’s an ark as sturdy as rock.
Catholicism is uniquely beautiful and historical. There’s simply nothing like it in our increasingly privatized (and pulverized) religious landscape. But here is where a deeper question surfaces for many people: Is it true? The question presents itself with great force today—not just to non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics but to many practicing Catholics as well—as the Church passes through what is arguably the worst crisis of the modern era. (When asked, “What is the worst thing the Catholic Church has ever done?”, many young people in the streets of Rome had the same answer: the current sexual abuse crisis.)
But look again at these two qualities of the Church in light of such terrible crises. The Church did not always have the papal splendor of St. Peter’s or even the monastic tranquility of St. Sabina’s. Peter and Paul came to spread the good news of Jesus Christ’s saving death and resurrection to pagan Rome—and they paid for it. The fisherman was crucified upside down in the circus of Nero and buried right on the very spot where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands. (Paul, a Roman citizen, was honorably decapitated.) St. Agnes and countless other Christians were brutally humiliated, tortured, and murdered under Diocletian. It took some very bloody centuries for Christianity to go from a dangerous, ragtag movement in the shadows of the Palatine Hill to the official religion of Rome.
Even when these outside threats faded (and in fact, they very much remain today, with more Christians dying for their faith in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined), the Church has always been plagued by inside threats—namely, the evil actions of some of its members and even some of its leaders. John Paul II made a number of sweeping apologies on behalf of the Church throughout his pontificate, and the Church’s history is riddled with Catholics doing horrible things—executions, persecution, corruption, interdictions, simony, hypocrisy—behavior that by all accounts should’ve consigned the Church to the ash heap of history. And yet it has lasted—and not only lasted, but spread like wildfire to the ends of the earth. It is truly a “catholic”—from the Greek for “universal”—Church.
It seems reasonable to conclude that the planting of the Church in the Eternal City in the first century, and the flowering and fortitude of the Church in the centuries after, are not just accidents of history. The blood of the apostles and martyrs nurtured the Gospel of peace in Rome, and through Rome, cities all over the world—even as humanity (and behind humanity, hell) threw its worst at the Church, from both inside and out. Doesn’t this bear witness to the divine origin of its mission, the explosive truth of its message, the transformative witness of its saints?
During the Mass for the canonization of Pope Paul VI, Oscar Romero, and five other holy men and women, I looked down on the successor of Peter and a slow, stately procession of bishops from around the world, and I was struck by something else: all those centuries and all those popes, running from St. Peter’s burial to the present moment with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square—and there I was, looking right at it, breathing in the same air, participating in the same reality. This was not a museum or an archive or a reenactment. The Church may be as solid and ancient as stone, but it’s a living stone. The Catholic faith has great breadth and depth, but it’s a vibrant breadth, a rushing depth—like a mighty river making its way through history to eternity. Every Catholic alive today is swept up in its life and commissioned to make disciples of all nations. The Church does not have this mission; it is this mission. And the mission lives on.