The crowds in Rome are massive. In the Sistine Chapel, of all places, for the very first time in my life, I felt what the Dutch call benauwd, textbook claustrophobia, a drumbeat panic to get the heck out of the press of humanity--far too many people, far too close.
But then, the Vatican is one of the premiere tourist sites in the entire world. People come from every continent, some of them very "religiously." Heavy as the crowds are, one of the blessings they extend is the omnipresence of men and women, in their regalia, men and women traditionally called "the religious." When I was growing up, us Protestant kids--boys especially--got a ton of laughs about nuns. "Hey, who let the penguins out?" That kind of thing.
In 1996, Pope John Paul insisted that "The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs." To that end, "the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ." The change in language in his Vita consecrata loosened the rules: "the Church has a right to expect. . ." is a healthy shade less demanding than "must."
A woman I know out on the reservation, a "religious" who has been so for fifty years, met us in jeans and a fun-run t-shirt not long ago, and apologized for her outfit. I'm quite sure she didn't mean a veil. I think what she meant was she thought she should not have looked as if she was painting the bathroom.
So veils and habits, for the most part, are rare in North America these days, despite the specifics John Paul II stipulated. There is, here at least, far more freedom and, as a consequence, on the streets, far fewer "penguins."
In Rome, not so. You can't miss them, and I loved noting their presence. In Rome, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of "religious," many, I'd guess, actual "pilgrims"; and most of those are dressed, well, more traditionally than their North American counterparts.
Their presence, all over, was a visual reminder of the the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church, the stretch of its place and power throughout the world. Like the crowds in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church is immense.
I may well be seeing all this through guilt-ridden, rose-colored glasses. Perhaps, when it comes right down to it, there's little to separate these tourists, in their habits, from the ones in shorts and tank tops. Perhaps they just eat less expensively and go to bed earlier. Perhaps they pull on the habit unthinkingly because it's simply expected. Perhaps they too go home with postcards and museum books, maybe a new Christmas tree ornament and beautiful new scarf. Maybe they too make sure to return with their own bottle of good wine.
But this old Protestant couldn't help seeing them in their differing habits and thinking of them--"red and yellow, black and white"--as a wonderful, observable presence in the Eternal City, their ministry just about exactly what Pope John Paul II meant it to be twenty-some years ago, a blessed ministry of the presence of Christ.