Referring to the Vatican, English Catholic apologist Rev. Ronald Knox reputedly offered this caution: “Better not look too closely into the engine room.” In other words, best to behold the majestic barque of Peter from some distance, rather than exposing oneself to how the leaky vessel actually operates, for that way lies disillusionment and the road to apostasy. Sound advice, it would seem, and I’ve followed it religiously for nearly sixty-five years, visiting Italy twice but somehow managing to avoid Rome. (Like every literary wannabe, I’m a fool for Venice.)

That came to an end in December, thanks to an invitation to a conference on the persecution of Christians held at the Pontifical Urban University just outside the Vatican. I hope to write more on that important topic in the future. But first an initial report on some encounters during my travels.

At the very start, a certain missionary zeal marked my pilgrimage, though I personally could not lay claim to any such enthusiasm. Standing in line at JFK to board our Alitalia flight, I couldn’t help but notice an especially clean-cut young man in the line next to me. He was very carefully put together, wearing a sweater and neatly knotted tie under a smart-looking gray sports coat. His slacks were dark and his shoes polished; his jaw square and his brow unfurrowed. Pinned to his sports coat was a plastic badge, the sort a doctor might wear. I was intrigued, but could not make out the writing. The mystery was soon solved. Unprompted, the young man began a conversation with an older gentleman, an Italian, in front of him in line. “This is my first trip abroad,” the young man said in a clear voice. “I’m eighteen years old. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to Macedonia.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, since Macedonia had been in the news for having closed its borders to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Was the kid serious, or merely oblivious? It seemed unlikely that he had relatives in Macedonia.

“Excuse me sir,” the young man continued, the Italian gentleman now somewhat perplexed. “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? You know, the Mormons? I’m from Utah, and I’m going to Macedonia as a missionary. Would you like to know more about my church?”

The old man, as well as others within earshot, smiled with benevolent amusement, but none took up the young man on his offer. I assume that when boarding a jet for a four-thousand-mile trip over a vast ocean, one’s most atavistic religious instincts take hold. I certainly reach for my rosary. Do young Mormons immediately start honing their missionary pitch? Still, I was fascinated and even impressed with the teenager’s forthrightness. He seemed guileless, as eager to get down to business as St. Paul was to convert the uncircumcised. At eighteen I was barely able to tie my own shoes.

I was also humbled. About the last thing I imagine myself doing is offering a brief for the glories of Roman Catholic Church to a perfect stranger.

Although I come from a line of salesmen, that sort of “elevator pitch” is just not in my DNA. When it comes to proselytizing (ask my children), my method is to hand out copies of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which of course was written when he was an Anglican. The responses have been muted.

It was a crowded plane, and I didn’t see that bright-eyed young man again. In Rome, conference participants were put up at a very posh hotel (talk of persecution could come later!) just down the hill and around the corner from the North American College. The American bishops send their most promising seminarians to the college, which historically has been a fast escalator to the episcopacy. The hotel, the college, and the Pontifical Urban University sit at the top of a very steep hill that looks down to the fabled Tiber and the rest of Rome. Frankly, by the end of my six days in the Eternal City, I wanted a cable car, or a Mormon missionary, to help haul me up and down that mountain.

As it happens, each day dozens of seminarians, dressed in regulation black shirts, pants, jackets, and Roman collars, walked energetically past the hotel. It was a bit like seeing the future of the U.S. church parading before you. I envied their stamina; perhaps it bodes well for the pastoral challenges they will face in dealing with what has become a remarkably anticlerical laity. Near the end of my stay, I stopped three seminarians to ask about a tour of the Vatican conducted by students at the college. Perhaps they were new to the college, but they were uncertain regarding details of the tour. Their directions did not pan out, but I probably misunderstood them.

In any event, I eventually made it to St. Peter’s on my own. It’s very big, seemingly designed to overwhelm. Engine rooms can be like that. In my brief conversation with the seminarians, I did ask where they were from. Texas, Ohio, and New York were the answers. I imagine Utah is under-represented. The three future priests I spoke with were courteous enough, but I wouldn’t call them gregarious. They seemed to lack the spiritual athleticism of the young Mormon, and I had a hard time picturing them heading off to Macedonia. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. They’ll have plenty of work to do once they get back home.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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