Thoughts on religion from inside the Vatican

Despite being impressed by the opulence of St Peter’s Basilica, I can’t help but think about what it represents and why I am so uncomfortable with that.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


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 Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City


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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City


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?

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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?

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

Final thoughts

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

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.


There’s so much to see in Rome, it’s worth finding somewhere comfortable to base yourself for a few nights.


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.


With some incredible designs, the boutique hotel G-Rough is pretty amazing.


And if you want to really splurge for somewhere incredible, have a look at Portrait Roma.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on religion from inside the Vatican”

  1. great post!
    and I agree with you, it’s hard to understand how all the poor christians deals with all this richness in the vatican without question it.

    religion is a strange thing!

  2. Why doesn’t France sell all their artworks in the Louvre museum to help poor people in former french colonies? Why do atheists like you like to attack catholism so much? There’s always going to be poor people in the world, until the end of time. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Seculars view poverty as a disease. As long as you have the necessary to live(food,water,a house to live in) it’s okay,you don’t have to be rich to be happy. In Christianity,a person’s real home is in heaven,not on earth. No need to accumulate riches for a temporal earth,like seculars do. Museums are a patrimony of humanity. They should not be destroyed to feed the poor. Who creates poor people? Governments, unequal distribution of wealth. The earth has enough food and resources for everybody,but unequal distributions make millions of people poor. The Pope has even invited beggars for free to the Sistine chapel. It’s Protestants that think that way:’oh,why don’t they sell it to give it to the poor’. So Your solution to poverty is making all poor women use contraception? Apparently only the rich can have children. In Europe, where most people use contraception, they need immigrants. Why doesn’t the USA sell the white house to feed the poor? That sounds like Marxism to me. With all due respect to the different opinions.

  3. It was interesting to read your post. Thanks for your honest questions, concerns, and comments. They are very authentic.
    I am a Roman Catholic, and I love my Church. You are correct. There have been many mistakes along the way, but as we can see, the church is still standing. Despite the mistakes of the conquests, the evil popes, and yes even the betrayal of one of its earliest apostles and Bishops, Judas of Iscariot, the Church remains.

    I would like to add that you did not mention one other element of religion, that is personhood. This church is not founded on a book, on a set of philosophical beliefs, or of any political agenda. It was founded by a man named Jesus Christ. I know, we have all heard about him, but I ask do we really know him?

    If we can honestly say yes, than we know that He is love. We can know this without science, methodology, or physical proof. Just like if I were to ask you, how can you prove that your Mother loves you? Could you give a scientific answer to that question? I think not. I would without a doubt take your word for it. So, in the same manner take my word for it. Jesus is real, He is God, and I can say without a doubt that He loves me, and that He loves you!

    Therefore Jesus wants to have a relationship with you. A relationship through the one true Catholic Church. Also believe me that through love all things are made possible. Yes there has been scandal with the members that represent the church, but not scandals caused by Jesus. He is pure and undefiled. After all, Jesus was betrayed by his follower and friend Judas at the beginning of the church.

    Lastly, to prove my love for Jesus, and the love Jesus has for me, I am currently in the process of becoming a Roman Catholic Priest. I am in Seminary, and I can honestly say that I am 100% happy giving my life to Jesus for the sake of the church and for souls that thirst to know God. I am not giving up having a wife and children because I am brainwashed or because I want to gain the riches of the church. No, it is because I am in Love with God because God is in love with me. So much so, that God himself died so I may be one with him.

    Happy Easter!


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