I was expecting mass at the Vatican to be an amazing, life-altering experience, but in reality, it was one of the least spiritual experiences of my life.
My husband and I traveled to Rome this summer for a late honeymoon and decided to go to Sunday Mass at the Vatican. Although we got there early, St. Peter’s was already crowded. The building is shaped like a cross, and the nave — the top of the cross at the front of the church — was partitioned off by security guards for the service. There were also partitions creating an aisle from the back of the church to the nave. The seats were already full and people were crowded around the partitions.
When Mass began, the thousands of tourists to start pushing and shoving to get closer. My husband and I were pushed up against the partition with people pressed up against us on all sides. After the entrance hymn, people started pushing aggressively forward to get from their places along the aisle to the front.
The security guards let 20 people into the nave at a time. We shuffled forward with the throng, and little by little we got closer to the gate. When I was in the next group to go through the gate, I was pushed so roughly that I fell and caught myself on the partition, with one leg still trapped on the other side. I was terrified that I was going to be trampled by the mob, who continued to push past me! After a security guard stopped the crowd and helped me up, my husband and I joined the group behind the pews.
During the entirety of the Mass, people were coming and going, taking pictures, videos, and selfies, talking to one another, and generally acting like tourists instead of worshippers. I saw one uninterested teenager playing games on his phone and another man was making a phone call. Lots of people who obviously weren’t Catholic got in the communion line and a few even photographed themselves and others as they approached the altar. I was horrified.
I left St. Peter’s confused and disappointed. How could Mass at the Vatican, the center of the universe for the Catholic Church, be so irreverent?
After the shock wore off, I began to process the situation. Despite the lack of reverence, I realized that there was not a lack of God in the situation.
Among the chaos, there were a few reverent worshippers. A Hispanic family next to us recited the Gloria, Creed, and Our Father in Spanish. An Asian man was fervently praying the rosary as the indecipherable Latin flowed around us. An African couple raised their hands in prayer. A few people had the Bible pulled up on their phones and responded in their own languages after each reading. A father next to us helped his son focus by explaining what was going on. A small group knelt on the marble floor during the consecration.
I reflected that there are always going to be distractions during Mass, although most services won’t be as chaotic as the one at the Vatican. But we get out of Mass what we put into it. Those who were kneeling, praying, and reading Scripture were worshipping God — their experience was very different than that of a tourist.
I also realized that I probably had unrealistic expectations going in. Was I hoping for angels to swoop down from heaven just because we were at the Vatican? Was I expecting miraculous healings? Was I anticipating that thousands of people would begin speaking in tongues? Maybe nothing that extreme, but I did anticipate something more deeply spiritually moving than regular Sunday Mass.
In retrospect, looking only for the miraculous misses the point. In most people’s lives — my own included — God mostly speaks in quiet whispers, not big flashy shows. The times I’ve felt closest to God were times of silent reflection, a Bible verse that I knew was meant for me, kindness from friends when I was going through difficult times, and the beauty of creation on hikes through the woods. During these times, there were no external signs of grace, but I knew that God was working quietly in my heart. Even the miracle of the Eucharist is a quiet miracle — the bread and wine don’t change their appearance, and it takes faith to see that Christ is truly present.
God was at work in quiet ways at the Vatican Mass. It just took a more attuned ear to hear Him in a noisy environment.
Amidst the chaos at the Vatican, I also saw a universal desire for the divine. In my anthropology classes in college, we learned that every human culture that has ever existed has believed in something greater than humanity: God, gods, ancestors, nature, karma, etc. Theologians talk about the “God-shaped hole” in every human heart. We all have a longing inside of us that can only be filled by the Creator, the One who intentionally left a space that only He can fill.
Even if these tourists were not actively participating in Mass, they were drawn to the Vatican, a holy place, and they were fascinated by the religious ceremony. They were pushing and shoving to see priests partake in a divine encounter. They took pictures to capture a moment where God was present. If God were not of any interest to these people, then they could have stuck to pictures of the architecture, sculptures, and mosaics. Instead, they chose to investigate the Mass.
Will I ever return to Mass at the Vatican? Probably not. But instead of feeling disappointed in the experience, I see the experience as a reminder to look for God within the chaos and clamor of my daily life. And that has helped me find a new sense of peace and hope.