Welcome! This blog celebrates both the local and the catholic -- that is, universal -- aspects of the Roman Catholic Church by sharing reflections on experiences of the Church in a variety of settings and cultures. Postings will come from around the world and around the corner. You don't have to be a Catholic to come along.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Sistine Chapel in Two Acts

Context is everything. Really.

On my first trip to Rome, in 2004, I sat on a marble bench on one side of the Sistine Chapel and marveled at what Michelangelo had wrought. The tourists were noisy, but not enough to distract me from the wonder of the masterpiece above me -- and something else.

Pope John Paul II was a old and frail. I looked around and realized with tears in my eyes that it could not be long before this sacred space would be the site of a conclave to elect a new pope.

A few days later, as Ann and I were standing outside the Coliseum, I overheard a tourist say, "That's the most impressive thing I've seen in Rome." I was much more impressed by the Sistine Chapel, both the vision of the grand plan and the execution of the individual elements.

By our next visit, four years later, the expected election had taken place and Pope Benedict XVI sat on the Chair of Peter. This time the Chapel was packed with lots of tour groups. The noise level was almost deafening and the guards had to yell "Silenzio!" and "No pictures!" every few minutes. (We obeyed, which is why the photo above by best friend and traveling companion extraordinaire Steve Winter, is not from inside the Sistine Chapel.)

Later on that same trip, we visited the Cenacolo in Milan to see Leonardo's "The Last Supper." The contrast in setting was stunning. Here there was no crowd and no noise. The couple of dozen or so visitors appreciated the genius of Leonardo's work in almost total silence.

Although part of a church, the huge wall on which "The Last Supper" is painted was in a refectory -- a dining room. At one time in its long life, that room housed horses. During World War II, it had no roof and was exposed to the elements. In no way does the Cenacolo have the dignity of the famous chapel in which popes are elected . . . and yet, viewing Leonardo's masterwork there was much more of a spiritual experience for us than our second visit to the Sistine Chapel.

What a difference silence makes in the spiritual life.

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