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7 Sure-fire Signs You're on the Wrong Vatican Tour
Zenit News Agency ^ | 11/3/11 | Elizabeth Lev

Posted on 11/04/2011 8:08:34 AM PDT by marshmallow

Advice From Guides for Finding a Guide

ROME, NOV. 3, 2011 ( When Benedict XVI launched the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization and then announced the upcoming Year of Faith, I found myself wondering how I could contribute to this momentous initiative. I couldn't exactly quit my job, leave my children in Rome and set out as a missionary in Zambia.

On further reflection, however, I realized that as an art historian I have a very powerful means of evangelization at my fingertips. Nearly every day I watch unsuspecting pilgrims and tourists being fed misinformation about the treasures of Vatican art and the cultural contributions of the Church.

After years of doing tours in the Vatican, I have noticed that many Catholics come away dismayed or confused by their experiences in the museums. More often than not, this is the result of the guides who take them through the potentially overwhelming collections, drumming their own cynical viewpoints into the heads of Catholics who haven't had the time or good fortune to understand why art matters so much to the Church.

I canvassed several of my best colleagues of diverse religious backgrounds for things that they have noticed over the years as signs of bad tours. (To be frank, one of the best -- and funniest -- answers I got was from an excellent non-Catholic colleague.)

So if you happen to tour in Rome, here are a few indications that you perhaps are hearing a falsified story about the Church, its history and its art, (there are far more than seven, but the number has a nice sacramental ring to it):

1) You have been approached by a seedy person in the line offering to help you "skip the queue" (line).

These are people who are taking advantage of those who have arrived to the museums without reservations and are surprised to find a line. The Vatican Museums welcomes more than 4 million visitors a year (this year it will be 5 million) and is one of the most popular and important museums in the world. You can avoid the line yourself by choosing off-hours (the museums stay open until 6 p.m., though the entrance closes at 4 p.m.. Alternatively, after 1 p.m., the line dies down or disappears entirely.) The museums also have a remarkably efficient reservation service -- and you can even book tours through the museums. Or you can go to the information office in St. Peter's Square and book same-day tickets from there. The line-parasites are exploiting visitors' lack of preparation to earn a few euro out of your desperation to get out of line, but generally are not awfully concerned about the quality of information they give you once you get inside.

Note: You have really messed up if you are following a scruffy shyster down an alley when you know you would never do this in any other major city, only to find out you have to wait longer for them to gather a group than you would have spent waiting in line, if, in fact, there was a line!

2) Your guide dresses like (a) she has just come from working in a local pub where less clothes equals bigger tips, or (b) he has just crawled out of bed to do a tour.

If your guide doesn't respect the beauty and history of the museums enough to groom or follow the dress code himself, how can you expect the guide to be able to convey the majesty of the collections? Just because Michelangelo painted nudes, doesn't mean the guides have to emulate them!

Note: This type of tour is frequently accompanied by overt hints about how the guide is expecting a tip at the end of the tour, embellished by tales of how impoverished he or she is.

3) Your guide approaches the Vatican and the Church with cynicism.

It is one thing to be a non-believer who has taken the time to learn about the Church and respects its treasures, at least on a purely aesthetic level. There are many excellent guides who know art and the purpose behind it, despite a lack of any personal faith. It is very much another thing when a guide tries to build up his or her own importance by belittling the Church. It is a 2,000-year-old institution with 1.4 billion members, and accomplishments that no other institution in the world can boast of. No one pooh-poohs Apple or Microsoft as a petty little business, and the Catholic faith is far more established and has inspired even brighter minds than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Edith Stein, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, to name a few. This of course leaves out the millions of exceptional men and women who have contributed to the great body of Catholic culture (St. Catherine of Siena, Michelangelo, Dante, Father Gregor Mendel ... you get the idea).

The most irritating aspect of the cynical approach is the absolute ingratitude, especially from foreign guides. The Vatican Museums provide them with the means to live in Italy, raise families or buy expensive accessories, and yet all they can do is bite the hand that has generously fed them. Would you really tolerate someone living in your home who constantly belittled you, and your manners and hospitality?

Note: Many guides are outstanding historians, archeologists or art historians. There are some who are more faith-oriented and others who are more fact-oriented. A little research goes a long way with guides. There are plenty of reviews of guides and guide companies out there. If you are looking for a little education about the Church on your tours, find out who is educating you. You wouldn't select a school in a haphazard fashion.

4) Your guide doesn't know basic Church doctrine and biblical imagery.

You probably wouldn't want to be taken on a tour of the United States Supreme Court by someone who didn't know anything about what the court does. Someone who knew a few factoids, but didn't understand the competence of the body and why it exists, wouldn't make an impressive guide. In much the same way, avoid the sort of Vatican guide (and there are, unfortunately, many) who confuse the Immaculate Conception for Virgin Birth, don't know what the Pope does, or can't tell you what the catechism is. If your guide starts to explain Christian teachings in a suspicious way (e.g., "We don't really know if there was a historical Jesus"; "The Vatican is afraid of science"; or "Vatican II was all about opening the Church up to the new realities of birth control and premarital sex"; (these guides are frequently fixated on sexuality), don't be afraid to ask questions to get an idea of how much the guide knows about what he or she is talking about. If they tell you that Pope Benedict XVI is trying to bring the Church back to the Middle Ages, ask which of Pope Benedict's writings have they read. If they decry the "return of the old-rite liturgy" ask them the name of the apostolic letter (Summorum Pontificum) that allows for its celebration, whether they have read it, and what exactly it said. If they spontaneously bring up Benedict's connection to Hitler or his guilt by association in the sex abuse crisis of 2002 within the first half hour of the tour, and especially if they whisper the word "pedophile," you might as well leave -- your tour is being led by someone whose sources don't go farther than Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.

5) Your guide regales you with scandal stories about papal love affairs, bank scandals and murders, while failing to mention anything positive that the Church has done throughout the centuries.

Some guides assume that pilgrims go to the Vatican Museums for the same cheap titillation provided by a glossy magazine in the supermarket check-out line, or a racy historical novel. Along with very human and flawed persons in the Church, we have countless great and holy examples throughout the ages who thoroughly overshadow their less worthy counterparts. Think, for instance, of the heroism of the martyrs (these guides will probably tell you falsely that no Christian was ever martyred in the Colosseum), the selfless abnegation of St. Francis, the pastoral genius of St. Philip Neri, the generous service of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and the thoughtfulness and depth of Blessed John Henry Newman. Pope Julius II may have had his faults (and even these did not involve salacious behavior), yet he gave us Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael in the Stanze, the new St. Peter's Basilica, and the Laocoon. Where would we be without this man who knew where his talents lay and how to use them for the glory of God and his Church? If your guide starts sounding like the "Borgias," remember that a fictional television series bears little resemblance to Church history. There is no excuse for a tour based on novels or films that purports to be led by an educated "scholar."

6) Your guide compartamentalizes the art of the Vatican into a few disconnected details without explaining its larger context.

I've heard them all. "Michelangelo painted God from the rear to 'moon' the Pope"; "Michelangelo painted lots of nudes because he was homosexual and wanted the church to accept this"; "the popes castrated the statues in the Vatican"; "Raphael was so jealous that he painted Michelangelo into the Stanza frescos"; "the Pieta is based on Michelangelo mourning the mother he lost when he was six"; and yada yada yada. All these juicy factoids are either false or silly, unsubstantiated conjectures that cheapen the works of art. If your tour is a collection of unrelated soundbites, intended for laughs while masking the importance of the art, you are amusing yourself at the expense of an enriching experience. Funny is great -- I rely on it -- but it needs to add sparkle to substance, rather than replacing it. Ask your guide three good books on Michelangelo or the Vatican that he or she has read -- if you hear the words "code," "secrets," or "hidden symbols," it's a bad sign; if you hear "A World Lit Only By Fire," go to the pharmacist and ask for an antidote for snake-bite.

7) Your guide gripes about the supposed worth and extravagance of the Vatican collections and then gets more excited about the gift shop stop than the Sistine Chapel.

When the most lengthy stop on your tour is the visit to a gift shop, you are wasting time. There are plenty of gift shops in the Vatican and environs. While there are several objects only available in the Vatican Museum shop, the fact that a guide builds a long pause into the tour for shopping isn't a very good sign. Most guides get kickbacks from various shops, both in and out of the Vatican Museums -- the practice is as old as guiding itself -- and when the guide is more interested in the extra money he or she will make off of you while taking an extended break, you have chosen the wrong tour. This behavior is invariably accompanied by much griping about the supposed wealth of the Vatican and its collections, how it could feed some invented number of people in sub-Saharan Africa and how much "secret" treasure is hidden away in the basement -- you might want to ask at this point how many times the Vatican has been sacked over the last few centuries, and what is left ...

Christians, this is your heritage! Faith in the Incarnation, God-made-man, gave Christianity a unique vision of beauty and a sense of duty to relay that magnificent encounter with Christ through the arts, literature, music, architecture and painting. What other civilization has produced a Sistine Chapel, a St. Peter's Basilica or a Chartres cathedral? The beauty of the invisible God rendered visible has fueled the most creative minds in the world for centuries upon centuries!

The joyous news of our salvation is proclaimed in every room of the Vatican Museums. Take your legacy in hand and remember that just because you're on vacation, you are not on vacation from your faith. Respond with reason and a critical sense, learn about the wealth of your Christian art with responsibility. There is no sense feeding and funding those who would turn our artistic and spiritual legacy into an occasion for bad-mouthing everything we hold dear.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

TOPICS: Catholic; History; Humor
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1 posted on 11/04/2011 8:08:36 AM PDT by marshmallow
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To: marshmallow
The Vatican Museums provide them with the means to live in Italy, raise families or buy expensive accessories, and yet all they can do is bite the hand that has generously fed them. Would you really tolerate someone living in your home who constantly belittled you, and your manners and hospitality?

That would also be a good question to ask La Raza and their puppets in congress.

2 posted on 11/04/2011 8:13:25 AM PDT by Vigilanteman (Obama: Fake black man. Fake Messiah. Fake American. How many fakes can you fit in one Zer0?)
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To: Vigilanteman

The only problem I have with the Vatican Museums, which I have visited and enjoyed, occurs when the Catholic Church pleads poverty.

3 posted on 11/04/2011 8:15:16 AM PDT by mewzilla (Forget a third party. We need a second one.)
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To: marshmallow

When I toured the Vatican Museums it was so crowded and noisy that I couldn’t hear the guide and could only see the ceiling. Then we were taken to the Sistine chapel where we were told we had twenty minutes. I just stood there in a panic knowing I only had twenty minutes to absorb such a magnificent work of art.

4 posted on 11/04/2011 8:27:37 AM PDT by k omalley (Caro Enim Mea, Vere est Cibus, et Sanguis Meus, Vere est Potus)
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To: mewzilla

>>occurs when the Catholic Church pleads poverty.<<

Could you give us a link to the Catholic Church pleading poverty?

Maybe an individual parish but the Church?

5 posted on 11/04/2011 8:34:46 AM PDT by netmilsmom (Happiness is a choice)
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To: marshmallow

1. When it ends with you under a dogpile of Swiss Guards and Italian cops.

6 posted on 11/04/2011 8:41:02 AM PDT by RichInOC (Sarah Palin is at war with the left. Most Freepers are just playing the video game.)
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To: RichInOC; Lazamataz
1. When it ends with you under a dogpile of Swiss Guards and Italian cops.

I didn't know you toured the Vatican with Laz.

7 posted on 11/04/2011 8:45:55 AM PDT by Jeff Chandler (Ah, the old Hope-a-Dope.)
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To: marshmallow
I had only a short time in which to visit the Vatican, but was thrilled to do so for the art and the history (nope, not a Catholic). An acquaintance and I did the “self-guided tour” routine, which still bordered on input overload. The Sistine Chapel ceiling had just been cleaned; the colors and imagery were magnificent.
8 posted on 11/04/2011 8:47:46 AM PDT by Pecos (O.K., joke's over. Time to bring back the Constitution.)
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To: marshmallow

The Vatican museums are overwhelming and should be seen one at a time. The best tour can be requested at the Vatican website, and that’s the Scavi Tour. It’s a lottery, and not easy to get. Cost is 12 euros. It’s a guided tour of the level two floors below the Basilica, and goes back over 2,000 years. It was a burial place for the rich, and so old that some of the rooms are pagan era. The guides are vetted by the Vatican and the one we had was a very learned English gentleman who was fantastic.

This level was excavated in the ‘50s. At the end you peer through glass about 12 feet at the resting place of St. Peter, directly under the main altar. It’s goosebump city, no matter your beliefs. You can peruse a fabulous photo tour at the Vatican website.

9 posted on 11/04/2011 10:21:46 AM PDT by SaxxonWoods (.....The days are long but the years are short.....)
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To: SaxxonWoods

We did the Scavi tour. Booked two months in advance as soon as we knew our flight dates. They were only taking two tours a day then. Great stuff.

10 posted on 11/04/2011 10:30:07 AM PDT by morphing libertarian
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To: marshmallow
I was just in Paris the week before last and toured Notre Dame. It was free.

While touring the inside, my wife asked me who a certain statue of a praying Catholic saint was portraying in a particular chapel, and I found out that it was Saint Louis from a sign on the wall.

"What does the sign say?" she asked.

I translated the French and told her "St. Louis is praying for his Cardinals to overcome the Texas Rangers in tonight's World Series game."

She sneered at me, but the next morning in our hotel room we found out that Albert Pujols tied Babe Ruth's record in World Series home runs in a single game and the Cards beat the Rangers 16-7.

11 posted on 11/04/2011 11:05:38 AM PDT by The KG9 Kid
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To: netmilsmom

When the Vatican is sitting on all that loot, why are parishes with parishioners closing and archdiocese going bankrupt? Since the Vatican seems all for sharing the wealth and social justice, it should practice what it preaches.

12 posted on 11/04/2011 3:09:26 PM PDT by mewzilla (Forget a third party. We need a second one.)
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To: mewzilla

The Church believes parishes should largely care for themselves. The Vatican really isn’t sitting on any wealth. Art is not really wealth when it is donated to the Church. It is used to glorify God and His Church, not send to parishes which have failed to adhere to teachings well enough to thrive or who have suffered from an unfortunate change in society.

You don’t destroy a priceless treasure donated to the Church just to temporarily prop up dying parishes in American cities.

13 posted on 11/04/2011 3:26:30 PM PDT by vladimir998 (Protestants think reality is about how people feel)
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To: mewzilla

That would do about as much good as the National Park Service selling Mt. Rushmore in order to bail out Detroit.

14 posted on 11/04/2011 7:26:57 PM PDT by Vigilanteman (Obama: Fake black man. Fake Messiah. Fake American. How many fakes can you fit in one Zer0?)
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To: mewzilla

>>When the Vatican is sitting on all that loot, why are parishes with parishioners closing and archdiocese going bankrupt?<<


So they are supposed to sell the great works of art to support innercity parishes with no parishioners? Puleez.

15 posted on 11/04/2011 7:27:53 PM PDT by netmilsmom (Happiness is a choice)
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To: mewzilla
The thing is that if the Church sold these works of art, no one would get to see them -- they'd go to private collections. Wouldn't that be a loss? Isn't it the duty to show this priceless works of art to future generations?

And, also, some of these CAN'T be sold -- can you imagine chipping up parts of the Sistine chapel?

16 posted on 11/07/2011 4:15:03 AM PST by Cronos
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To: mewzilla; marshmallow; k omalley; netmilsmom
I've been to Rome a few times and I'll say this -- don't waste money on a guide. Read up on it yourself and get a good guide-book (there's one which has a lot of text, can't remember the name and then the Lonely planet guides, then the Discover series that has lots of nice pictures to help you navigate your way around.)

Spend time and explore on your own and you'll enjoy the experience more. Don't try to see everything, just plan and focus on what YOU are interested in

17 posted on 11/07/2011 4:17:13 AM PST by Cronos
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To: Jeff Chandler; RichInOC; Lazamataz

>>>>1. When it ends with you under a dogpile of Swiss Guards and Italian cops.

>>I didn’t know you toured the Vatican with Laz.

You know, I have met Laz and . . . well, you know, I can well-imagine that!

18 posted on 11/07/2011 4:37:20 AM PST by FreedomPoster (Islam delenda est)
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To: marshmallow
My Dad had to do battle with Gypsies when he went there. I guess they stake out tourists entering Vatican City. He has to grab his wallet back from one of them just in the nick of time. This was about ten years ago - maybe Obama has imported them as economic refugees since then.
19 posted on 11/07/2011 4:38:29 AM PST by Hacksaw (I don't hate Mormons. Is that okay?)
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To: mewzilla; netmilsmom

Nah, I know what netmilsmom means, but I do know what you’re talking about. The Catholic Church certainly asks for money to accomplish its mission. They spend an infinitessimal amount of time doing so compared to most Protestant churches, but it does seem to master guilt invoking: *some* Protestants promise that giving your money away will make you rich; the Catholic church promises it will make you one with the poor.

The Catholic Church used to be fabulously wealthy... if you measure wealth by land holdings. For hundreds of years, Europe had very few wars (the Crusades were a frontier skirmish compared to the 30 Years’ War). Reversing what most people believe, the life expectancy was higher in AD 1300 than in AD 1900. And there were often fewer than 200 work days in a year.

Birth rates were moderated by delayed weaning, a seemingly endless list of feast days and solemnities when sex would be considered improper, and a near total lack of privacy: the entire community shared food, shelter, and, uh, sleeping quarters (the “apartment” was a technological breakthrough accomplished by the development of heat-redirecting chimneys.) Oh, yes, and if “wealthy” parents had more children than they could provide inheritances for (since subdivision of estates was unheard of), there was a strong encouragement to join the monasteries, seminaries, and convents. Of course, when a couple died without heirs, their land was acquired by the church, where the monks, priests, sisters and nuns could live in enough comfort that it remained an attractive lifestyle, despite the lack of sex.

Thus, prior to the plague and Ottoman invasions, much of Europe lacked any accumulated wealth, but had decent longevity and a remarkable amount of leisure time. The plague caused a dramatic drop in population, however. Soon, there was an excess of land, and a “middle class,” independent of the communal manors sprung up. Separated from all the festivals, the middle class proved more productive than the manor caste, and soon became far wealthier. At the same time, apartments, international trade, and standing armies created kings who could isolate themselves from their subjects and enjoy fantastic opulence...

Meanwhile, church lands, once providing for the needs of a massive clerical caste, were now sitting largely empty. The church lost nearly all such lands, if not when the Muslims conquered the various lands (Spain, Portugal, lower Italy, the Balkans, Hungary, Bohemia, and of course all of the MIddle East and North Africa), then to Protestant revolts (UK, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland), or to the secular states (Upper Italy, France, Latin America). And each group looted and plundered as much as they could.

The Vatican City now consists of a tiny fraction of the amount of land that a prominent college might have, 110 acres. It is the Capital city and contains the concentrated artistic wealth of a Church of 1.4 billion people... which amounts to what? a buck a person???

The art contained inside is literally priceless. As in, it can’t really be sold off, so it isn’t even really worth a buck a person. Each year, the Vatican collects “Peter’s Pence,” from the various wealthier dioceses around the world, to pay for the cost of maintaining and preserving the Vatican; that fund was finally in the black after decades of being in the red... until the economic crash of ‘08.

So “the fabulous wealth” of the Catholic church amounts to 110 acres, and an art collection that the church is literally going broke trying to preserve.

On the other hand, dioceses and parishes have independent finances, and some still have decent-sized land holdings; churches’ tendency to anticipate future needs of their flock tends to make them pretty good real-estate speculators. But in this regard, the Catholic Church are poor brothers in the United States to other American denominations with a tiny fraction of the followers. Many people would be shocked to find out the precarious finances of the dioceses and the Vatican, precisely because the Catholic church is so loathe to “claim poverty,” as Netmilsmom accurately states.

20 posted on 03/26/2012 6:38:01 AM PDT by dangus
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