Today after work (in FCO, Rome) I took the bus from the airport to the Termini station, and got the metro to near the Vatican. Rome is an unfamiliar environment to me, I suppose like any big city. While travelling you can see ruins, elaborate hotels and other buildings, nice homes, and tin shacks. The full spectrum of life is on view. From the train it is possible to see a few homes built from waste materials right at the edge of the track. Walking through the streets of the city it is clear that there are a number of homeless people around.
Along with the blazing heat, all of these things are alien to me. I walked down the busy street alongside the Vatican area and arrived in St Peter's Square. It is an impressive place, and an epic experience to be surrounded by thousands of years of heritage like this, huge pillars, massive statues and monuments.
As I walk around the huge open area, whatever way I turn there are works of architectural art. Of course the pinnacle in this area is the Basilica and what's better is that it is completely free to enter. I found the way in and walked slowly around. The excess is everywhere, from the ornate marble floor to the heavy decorative iron gates, to the sculpted engravings on the doors, to the detailed artwork on the ceilings. The statues, paintings and carvings are everywhere, each more elaborate than the next. New wonders meet the eye at each new glance.
I have visited before, a few years ago, however, on this visit my heart was heavy. Today I had the same eyes, but a different heart. For this to be the headquarters of a church claiming the name of Christ doesn't sit very well with me at all. Let me be clear, I don't see a call to live in poverty for the sake of others, but I do see a directive not to live in excess. I think of Matthew 6:19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" as I stand inside this huge treasure trove, the like of which is almost unequaled in the entire world. This doesn't add up to me. I think of the cost of building and maintaining a place like this, and at the same time those people living in cardboard beside the railway are in my head.
It is an amazing spectacle to see, don't get me wrong, if you're nearby pop in and see it. But it seems to smell a little of injustice when you contrast this extravagance with the local and global poverty that exists. There is no need for any church to have accumulated such wealth. I am aware that there is a lot of charitable work done, and so on, but I struggle to believe that what I see around me is the most efficient or effective way to help people. As I exited the building I had a tear in my eye for the errors of our forefathers and the stewardship of the church.
If you get the chance, go, visit, and enjoy the craftsmanship and the amazing artistic and architectural achievements. But do so knowing that a lot of the money that built it came from people who could ill afford it, who paid it to acquire their salvation, and those who were entrusted with it poured it into excessive property rather than pouring it into people who need it.