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We recently took a weekend jaunt down to Cincinnati (or “Cinciana” as my son calls it) to view the touring exhibit , “St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes.”

It was interesting, but not in ways that I expected.

I was startled, first of all by how overtly evangelistic the exhibit was, letting us know from the film we had to watch before we entered as well as the introductory placards that what we were about to see was about those men whom Jesus had chosen to lead his church. Period.

Well. I guess there won’t be many Baptist groups sending busses to this one.

Especially with the cast of Pope John Paul II’s hand that ends the exhibit, and which you are invited to touch.

This might also explain why the exhibit is being presented in places like Houston and Cincinnati, rather than Los Angeles and New York City.

The exhibit tells the history of the papacy and the Vatican, beginning with Peter and the traditional location of his remains on that spot, moves to Constantine’s construction of a basilica, and then, by necessity, skips to the 15th century and the building of St. Peter’s , since during the intervening years, the center of papal administration was not, in fact the Vatican, but rather the Lateran – or Avignon, France for a few years as well.

There were certainly some interesting artifacts on display: a fifth-century mosaic of St. Peter, huge ciboria, a little hammer they used to use to tap a pope’s head to make sure he was dead, the hand-written diaries of several papal conclaves, papal seals, bejeweled tiaras, a liturgical drinking straw, whatever that is, and, oddly enough, in this museum setting, a rather significant relic of Pope Pius V: a finger bone with a ring still encircling it.

Unfortunately, in my mind, the art itself wasn’t terrifically or uniquely impressive – the collections of almost every major art museum I’ve seen in the Midwest over the past three years hold more depth of religious, and even liturgical art and artifacts than what we saw in this exhibit.

As it happens, I took in this exhibit the day after I (finally) saw The Passion of the Christ. It was an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. Being immersed for two hours in the intensely redemptive suffering and sacrifice of Jesus at the hands of earthly powers and principalities, and then standing, blinking, in front of the heavily bejeweled tiaras of the Vicar of Christ gives one more than a little food for thought.

Papal fingers aside, I was particularly struck by two objects. One was a small paten and chalice set used by priests at Auschwitz. The other was a fascinating liturgical book stand, carved out of wood in the shape of a shell, that had been used centuries ago by missionaries to Latin America.

Perhaps it all works together somehow. Perhaps missionaries would not have been able to cross the world without the support of a wealthy papacy. Perhaps a papacy with deep roots in the world of nations and politics and economics stabilized the institution so that victims of persecution would have a church to come back to when they emerged back into the light.

Perhaps.

In a long clear glass case between other cases of crosiers and ciboria, was a staff with a little bowl on top. At a papal coronation, material is placed in the bowl, then set afire. It burns in a flash, and as it does, a Latin phrase is recited three times: “Sic transit gloria mundi” – So passes the glories of the world.

Living out our faith in the complexity and temptations of the real world is a challenge for all of us, not just popes. The way of the Passion lies before us – but will we follow?
The story is told that this same St. Peter, the focus of our exhibit, was fleeing Rome and his execution when Jesus appeared to him. Uttering another well-known Latin phrase, Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis?”
“To my execution,” Jesus answered. And Peter turned back and followed.

The glories of the world.

The way of the Passion.

Quo vadis?

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