Given this morning’s announcement of a new temple in Rome, Italy, I thought it might be appropriate to republish one of my first posts, now updated.
My wife and I took a week-long trip to Rome this past October. My wife had spent a couple of months in Rome several years ago as a student, and had been dying to go back (with me) ever since. It was also one of our last chances to take a big European vacation before the birth of our first child. Like any tourist in Rome, we had to make a stop at the Vatican.
If I had to guess, I would think that many Mormons feel a certain kind of secret and shameful envy of the Catholic Church (which they would never admit to, of course) due to its size, wealth, and power. Not too mention competition, especially for any missionary who served in heavily Catholic countries. I don’t think that is necessarily an admirable character trait, but just putting that out there. Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot. Plus, with this new development of a temple in Rome, you cannot ignore the tension and metaphor of plopping the perfect symbol of Mormonism right down into the heart of Roman Catholicism.
Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.
Temple Square is best described as an experience rather than simply a sight. Everything about it is clearly aimed at impressing the visitor. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor’s centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, it is also a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so). Temple Square is beautiful, magically so, at almost any time of year (I am sure they have quite the budget for gardening). For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Monson and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them, are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.
The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter’s and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men’s attempts to put God’s (and the Church’s) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin’s Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don’t think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because how else would we get all this stuff?
Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to be great art. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter’s is, by law, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor’s centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican’s Rafael and Michelangelo.
For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy and morbid (there aren’t any bones or relics on Temple Square that I am aware of). While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.
As the Church sets about to build a temple in the Eternal City, tons of questions come to mind. The ones that intrigue me here are questions of its design. Will this be a small temple or a large temple? Will the Church attempt to imitate an older style of architecture or will it look more or less the same as all of the other temples we currently build? I think to build another cookie cutter temple in Rome would be to miss out on a great opportunity. Plus, I cannot think of another city where we currently have a temple where such a high value is placed on art and the aesthetic, not to mention really really old things. A gleaming white brand new temple would just look out of place. And finally, will the Church put the same old 10 or 20 pictures in the Rome Temple that we use in every temple? I mean, the temple is never intended to serve as a museum for the patrons, and we only let visitors in once, but our art compares so poorly with the masters of Europe that I think it would be another missed opportunity to stick with the traditional and safe.
I, for one, will be following the developments surrounding the building of the Rome Italy temple with great interest and cannot wait to take my family back to Rome at a time when we can fit in a trip to a new “Temple Square” along with the standard sightseeing.