Getting to Know the Church in Rome

By Tommy Gambino, Columnist

Last semester, I had the privilege of studying abroad in the Eternal City of Rome. This unique opportunity opened my eyes to the idiosyncrasies of Italian culture, as well as the depths to which the Catholic Church has permeated that culture. Of all the classes I took there, my Theology class most introduced me to the city. A three-hour class never sounds appealing, but when half of that time is spent exploring Rome and touring magnificent churches, three hours starts to sound too short. There are over 900 churches in Rome, and in four months I hardly even scratched the surface of the religion, history, and architecture that inundated me wherever I went:

San Giovanni in Laterno, the original home of the Bishop of Rome; Santa Maria Maggiore, housing a crypt the allegedly contains the Nativity Manger; San Paolo fuori le Mure, built on the grave of St. Paul; Santa Prassede, housing the stump on which Jesus was flogged; La Chiesa del Gesú, the original Baroque Church holding the severed hand of St. Francis Xavier. These are just a handful of the amazing locations we visited and attended classes at.

Although the experiences I had during excursions defined my Roman education, what I learned inside the classroom was no less fascinating. I have been in Catholic school my entire life and have always taken classes based on the Church’s teachings, but I had never taken a class on the Church’s teaching on itself as an institution. What is the Church? It’s a fascinatingly more loaded question that it seems, and there is no better place to wrangle with the answer than down the river from the Vatican. I particularly enjoyed learning about the five Models of the Church.

Based on the masterpiece Models of the Church by Cardinal Avery Dulles (a former professor at The Catholic University of America), we explored the different ways to understand the nature of the Church: as Institution, Mystical Community, Sacrament, Servant, and Herald.

The most common model studied in history has been the Institution model, in which the Church is seen as a physical entity on earth ordained to spread the Word of God. Since Vatican II, the Church has been thought of more as a Community of believers that, when in communion with one another, become the Mystical Body of Christ. Sacraments allow for the spiritual grace of God to be made physical, and the Church can be understood as a sacrament because it acts as the Kingdom of God on Earth. In accordance with Jesus’ teaching that his followers should serve their fellow humans, the Church can be understood as a Servant of God’s lowliest children. Finally, as the Kingdom of God is seen as both a present and future reality, the Church can also be a Herald of the Second Coming, the precursor to the time in which Jesus will return and usher in his full Kingdom.

Image result for cua rome program Catholic University of America Rome Center

I could not have asked for a better place to learn about the rich history of the Church of Rome than Rome. Where else in the world can you pray at the grave of St. Peter? There is no better place to learn first-hand about the beauty of the mystery of the nature of the Church. I loved my semester abroad and I am thankful that I was blessed with this experience and education.

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