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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Legionary priests and brothers lead guided tours of Rome, helping visitors to experience the faith behind the art
Deacon Mark Thelen, LC and Brother Andrew Gronotte, LC showing the Pantheon to two university students
Deacon Mark Thelen, LC and Brother Andrew Gronotte, LC showing the Pantheon to two university students

By Brother Alexis Gatica, LC

Rome - Each year, around 4.2 million people from all around the world visit the Vatican Museums. This fact shows the deep desire that pilgrims have of getting to know the history, art and spirituality that fill this city. It also sheds light on the powerful role that art can play as a means of evangelization. 

On November 6, 2010, the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, told reporters:

You know that I place great emphasis on the relationship between faith and reason, that faith, and Christian faith, has its identity only in openness to reason and that reason becomes itself if it transcends itself towards faith. But the relationship between faith and art is equally important because truth, the aim or goal of reason, is expressed in beauty and in beauty becomes itself, is proven to be truth. Therefore, wherever there is truth beauty must be born, wherever human beings are fulfilled in a correct and good way, they express themselves in beauty. The relationship between truth and beauty is inseparable and therefore we need beauty.

In light of Pope Benedict XVI’s call to the New Evangelization, a number of Legionary priests and brothers studying in Rome have begun to offer guided visits to pilgrims, giving them the opportunity to discover the beauty of the Catholic Faith through the history and art of Rome.

Deacon Mark Thelen, LC, who participates in this initiative, speaks of the importance of art for transmitting the Faith:

“We belong to the generation of the Internet, of books that you can easily find, download and print. But long before this, for many years, the faith was communicated by means of images. Looking at these works of art – from the
Delving into the history of the Coliseum
Delving into the history of the Coliseum
earliest times of Christianity until today – the language of art has played an important role in the transmission of the Faith.  And it is a language that today we don’t entirely understand. We need to go back to these works from this perspective.”

It’s a challenge to find time between class and study to offer this service; nevertheless, some Legionaries have attended specialization courses, such as the recently ordained Deacon Luis Laska, LC, who is a registered guide in Portuguese for the Vatican necropolis (also known as the scavi). The most important challenge is to help people turn a trip to the Eternal City into more than just looking at a few monuments. 

Deacon Mark says, “I am deeply inspired by what the Holy Father said in his audience on August 31 last year: Dear friends, I ask you to rediscover the importance of this path also for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Towns and villages throughout the world contain treasures of art that express faith and beckon to us to return to our relationship with God. May the visits to places filled with art, then, not only be opportunities for cultural enrichment — that too — but may they become above all moments of grace, incentives to strengthen our bond and our dialogue with the Lord.  I think that our objective is precisely this: that the visit, the pilgrimage, is not only a moment for cultural enrichment, but that it is also a chance to enter into contact with the mystery and grace of God by weaving together the threads of art, history, and the Faith.  Certainly, there are many very good professional guides, but I believe that as Legionaries, with our studies in history, art, humanities and theology, we can contribute something new: a synthesis in light of the Faith. We can bring the art back to a much more organic and less fragmented outlook.”

A cross-road of culture and art, Rome has played a predominant role in the history of humanity. It’s from here that the faith spread throughout the whole world. To be able to study and live in Rome is a special grace, not only because you are close to the Holy Father, but also because of the cultural and artistic treasures that it contains, to say nothing of the witness of the saints that have walked its streets and have shed their blood here. 

Brother John Studer, LC, shares his personal impression of the Eternal City: “If you are looking for a complete experience of art, faith and history, there’s no city like Rome. First of all, the history of Rome for the past 3,000 years has been extremely rich. Next, in terms of the Faith, other than perhaps Jerusalem, there’s nothing like it. Everything that has happened and continues happening in the Church is centered in Rome in one way or another and flows out from here to the rest of the world. Finally, regarding the art, I think that as a consequence of the deep human and spiritual experience that permeates the city, a creative expression has sprung up that is unequaled anywhere else. If, as a tour guide, you consider the historical events, the circumstances of life, the techniques that have produced so many masterpieces, you should certainly include the faith that inspired
Father David Abad, LC explains St. Peter’s Square to newly arrived brothers
Father David Abad, LC explains St. Peter’s Square to newly arrived brothers
them.  My favorite artist is Michelangelo and I especially like his painting style. He managed to develop an artistic language with the human body that reached the heights of physical beauty.”

In an interview given to journalists in 2012, the Holy Father indicates that a true pilgrimage makes a difference since it means emerging from one´s daily routine, from the practical world, from utilitarianism, emerging only to be really on the way towards transcendence; to transcend oneself, to transcend daily life and thus also to find a new freedom, a time of interior rethinking, of self identification, of seeing the Other, God.

Deacon Mark, who prefers to call the guided visits ‘pilgrimages,’ reflects on the impact that this experience has on people.

“People are profoundly moved when they see the depth of works like the Sistine Chapel, the Dome of St. Peter’s, the Pieta, etc. On a number of occasions they have told me, or written in e-mails, that their pilgrimage to St. Peter’s, to the Vatican Museums and to the Sistine Chapel was not just the best moment of their visit to Rome, but also that it left a mark for their whole lives. But again, being honest, I think that this happens because it is a moment of divine grace.  Our role as guides, more than transmitting content and facts, is to facilitate an experience of beauty, in all senses of the word: through art, but also situating it in a personal and historical context so that it can really be a stimulus to reinforce our bond and our dialogue with the Lord.”

If this is important for pilgrims, it is all the more so for young religious who arrive to Rome to continue their formation. They have guided visits that cover the whole Eternal City. Some prepare themselves so that they, as well, can be guides for pilgrims and evangelizers by means of art. In some way they are aware that, as Blessed John Paul II said in his book Gift and Mystery, while studying is essential for the mission of the priest, it is even more important to learn about Rome itself.




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