Thoughts on religion from inside the Vatican
St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
I go into the Vatican with conflicted feelings. I leave with conflicted feelings. How can something so beautiful and awe-inspiring also have such a dark side? For the opulence on display is a constant reminder of the policies of centuries that stand in such contrast.
On my travels through Europe, it’s very common that I end up in churches. They are often the highlights of cities and towns – from a historical or architectural perspective. I also find that churches often reflect the local culture. It’s not just that they represent different religions, but their design and relationship with the area can say a lot about the people.
St Peter’s Basilica, though. Well, it’s a whole other story. It doesn’t just represent the local culture, it tells us a lot about one of the world’s largest religions. One that stretches across the entire world.
Whenever I go into a church to have a look, I am effectively doing it as a tourist. I have never been affiliated with any religion and would regard myself as an atheist (although the exact way I would describe myself is probably a bit more complicated – although I don’t believe in any religion that humans have created, I am open to the idea that there are higher forces we have not been able to explain). But even as a tourist who is interested in the architecture, the art, and the history, I still find myself thinking about religion.
Here in the Vatican, at St Peter’s Basilica, I think about it a lot – particularly about why I am often so uncomfortable with it.
In my mind, I see three different levels within the idea of ‘religion’. There is the faith, the community, and the organisation.
Faith is a tricky one because it is both so strong yet so illogical. Personally, I find the idea of faith fascinating – how can someone believe so deeply in something for which there is no evidence? But humans have been doing it for thousands and thousands of years. The religions have evolved and the deities have changed, but at the core of faith is this notion that there is more to life than we can comprehend.
Although I don’t understand this kind of faith because I have never felt that way, I do respect it. We are complicated animals and what makes humans so special is that we can have our own individual belief systems that help us navigate the world around us.
It makes the world a more interesting place too. When I see the people inside St Peter’s Basilica who have stopped to pray by a shrine, it reminds me how different we all. And if someone’s difference to me is that they believe in the goodness of a god, then so be it. That’s captivating, I find.
Beyond an individual’s faith, there are the communities that are formed by people who have a common belief. These communities come in all shapes and forms – it may be people from the neighbourhood gathering once a week to worship; it may be social events where families can spend time together; it may be a charity group; a school; a pilgrimage.
At their core, these communities are wonderful manifestations of religion. They give people friends; they help the less fortunate; they provide a support network; they educate the young with morals. Communities are the foundations of our society and if someone chooses to base their one around a religion, who am I to disapprove?
On top of that, often there is a sense of humanitarianism that comes from communities based on religious beliefs. If those groups use their abilities to genuinely and unconditionally help others, that surely makes the world a better place.
Unfortunately, history tells us that often aid is not given unconditionally.
And this brings me to the organisation of religion – and it’s where I have concerns. Because despite the best intentions of a religion’s followers and the worthiness of their communities, too often the focus of the organisation is power. And we all know that power corrupts.
I look around at the wealth on display inside St Peter’s Basilica and wonder if this is what the ideals of Catholicism are really about. While millions of Catholics around the world live in poverty, here the rulers have opulent palaces with untold riches within their domain.
And it’s not about the money, per se. After all, the treasures here in St Peter’s Basilica and around the Vatican are important cultural relics being protected for the future. And, even with all the wealth here, it would not go far if you tried to spread it around the 1.2 billion followers across the world.
No, my biggest concern is what this lavishness represents. To me, I see a ruling elite who care more about the institution of their church than their followers – and always have.
Look back to the days of European colonisation when indigenous civilisations all across the world were forced to join a new religion in exchange for food and shelter. The rulers did not care about these new followers – they just wanted to expand the base from which they could then consolidate their power.
Think about the time leading up to the Reformation when the clergy had become so corrupt that they were basically ripping off their congregations by selling indulgences.
There’s the blatant discrimination within the Catholic Church that prevents women from becoming priests – a clear disregard for half the community.
There are the policies towards abortion and contraception that quite literally kill people from developing countries.
Even the sexual abuse scandals of the past decades – while perpetrated by individuals rather than because of a policy – showed an institution that tended to protect its elite rather than the victims.
How can this organisation be something that should be worshipped?
I study the artwork spread throughout the enormous space under the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. The incredible creations – priceless and timeless – are a wonder to behold, no doubt. They were made by the finest artists of their time, many generations contributing to the galleries you find here today.
These artworks, these treasures, they were not made to celebrate the organisation or the institution of the Catholic Church. They were created to honour their faith and to celebrate the community which the artists were a part of.
Perhaps that is what I take away from this visit to the Vatican. That there are problems at an institutional level – and there always have been – but they do not take away from the well-intentioned beliefs held by more than a billion people.
I may not share those beliefs and I may disapprove of the actions of the religion’s elite. There are many times when I wonder how people can have faith in what they do. But I love that we live in a world today where these differences and contradictions create a more textured humanity.
When is St Peter’s Basilica open?
From April until September, the basilica is open every day from 0700 (7am) – 1900 (7pm).
From October until March, the basilica is open every day from 0700 (7am) – 1800 (6pm).
It is usually closed during papal addresses – the regular ones are on Wednesday mornings.
How much does it cost to visit St Peter’s Basilica?
Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free… but there’s a catch. The line to get in can often be very long and take a few hours, so you may want to consider buying one of the tickets or passes that lets you skip the line. More information on that below.
Are there tours of St Peter’s Basilica?
Tours with large groups aren’t allowed inside St Peter’s Basilica but there are a few options. The first is to use the Vatican and Rome Pass (information below) which includes a free audioguide. You can also buy this fast-track option with free audioguide. I would also recommend this small group tour which includes the Vatican Museums. And there is this private tour that focuses on the Vatican Museums but includes the basilica.
Are the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill included in the Vatican and Rome Pass?
Yes, if you have the Vatican and Rome Pass then you’ll be able to use it to skip the line to get into St Peter’s Basilica. You will also get a free audioguide, which is really useful to learn more about everything inside. The pass also gives you free entry to other sights like the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Vatican Museums. You can buy the pass online here and you can read my review here.
Where should you stay in Rome?
If you’re looking for a hostel, I would suggest the very cool Generator Hostel.
For something affordable but comfortable, Roema Guest House is a good option.
For good value but slightly upmarket, you should try the C’est La Vie Suites.
It’s not cheap but the design hotel G-Rough is pretty amazing.
And if you want to really splurge for somewhere incredible, have a look at Portrait Roma.