Mysteries of the Vatican Explained

Forum Aims to Make Church Teaching Accessible

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ROME, NOV. 4, 2009 ( How do you talk to a supporter of same-sex unions about the dignity of marriage? Or an engaged couple about the error in artificial contraception? How do you explain to a teenager that there are moral absolutes?

These and questions like them inspire the Vatican Studies Center, a project of the New Hampshire-based Thomas More College. The center is “particularly concerned about communicating the Church’s teaching to a wider audience through a range of media forums and outlets.” And to do this, it conducts a series of lectures called The Vatican Forum — directed to anyone who wants to learn more about the Church, from international journalists to seminarians in Rome.

The first forum of this academic year was held Oct. 27 in Rome.

Robert Moynihan, founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine and a columnist for ZENIT, was invited to address the topic “Unraveling the Mysteries of the Vatican.”

Something to look at

Though the Vatican is much more than a set of buildings, Moynihan said its art and architecture already represent something transcendent: “the aspirations and hopes we have of the sacred and of the divine, and the memories of the life of Jesus.”

The structures “draw your attention upward … in a human movement of the mind toward higher things,” Moynihan illustrated, pointing to the Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square, the Roman- and Greek-inspired basilica, Bernini’s columns, and Michelangelo’s cupola.

Besides being an invitation to lift one’s spirit to that which is above, they are the “highest aspirations of art and architecture in one place,” he added.

Peter and his Successors

Residing in the midst of all this finery is the Pope, but the tasks the come with his office far outweigh the privileges.

He can never retire, Moynihan recalled, although he could abdicate. And his power is not absolute. In other words, he is bound to orthodoxy and cannot teach against the deposit of faith.

Tradition binds the Pope’s actions and “a development or modernization” has to be in keeping with that traditHis main job, the expert summarized, is defending the deposit of faith handed down to him, and explaining this deposit through his preaching.

To help him with this are nine congregations and “another handful of councils,” Moynihan explained. He said the congregations assist the Pope in carrying out his work with regard to such things as the liturgy, Church doctrine, bishops and the Church’s missionary work. Councils, which were established after the Second Vatican Council, are more pastoral, he added, focusing on issues such as dialogue, justice and peace, and culture.

With this multitude of congregations and councils, Moynihan said the Vatican is “bigger than the Vatican,” since it has offices down the Via Conciliazione, and offices by the Spanish Steps, as well as at the Cancelleria, next to Piazza Campo Dei Fiori.

Times two

The heart of the Vatican mystery, though, is its dual nature, which Moynihan characterized as a “double helix.”

With both a religious and civil existence — it is its own state — there is bound to be confusion, he acknowledged. But this duality also gives unparalleled richness.

“Rome is a place where you have double the number of ambassadors of any other city, because they come here to Italy to represent their country […] but also they usually have a second ambassador to represent their country to the [Holy See],” Moynihan explained. “All you have to do is listen […] and get a sense of what is happening in Brazil, or China, or the United States or Germany.”

And along with being a hub of international information, he said that Rome is also a center of philosophical, theological, political and economic thought, as a result of the many pontifical universities that have been established here because of the presence of the Vatican and Holy See.

In attempting to explain the workings of the Vatican, Moynihan warned that sometimes it is hard to make people understand that “there is something that moves these people to something beyond ordinary human aspirations […] the fundamental motivation here is that of the truth and the proclamation of a higher reality.”

But trying to understand the Vatican is worth it, Moynihan contends, because “you get into the essential things […] you finally come to the reason for the Church and the reason for the Vatican, which is Jesus Christ.”

[Mary Woodard, a student at the Thomas More Vatican Studies Center, contributed to this report]
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