Today’s trip to the Vatican Museums brought us deep into the heart of Sr. Chris’s ground-breaking research and brought us up close to Crispina and many of her sisters, whose sarcophagi are housed at the Pio Cristiano.  

Upon our arrival at the Pio Cristiano we were met and personally welcomed by Dr. Umberto Utro, director of the Pio Cristiano, and Dr. Rosanna DiPinto, director of images for the Pio Cristiano. It was at the Pio Cristiano that Sr. Chris first saw sarcophagi of early Christian women depicted in positions of authority and influence. Dr. Utro then pointed her in the direction of more collections of sarcophagi around the world. And Dr. DiPinto was instrumental in providing images of both Christian and pagan sarcophagi from the museum’s collections for analysis and eventual printing in her book.  You could see the joy on all three of these colleagues faces as they were together in person for the first time in many years.

Throughout our trip, our tour guides and Sr. Chris have reminded us that the natural stone and cement that we see in ruins today would have come to life with elaborate decoration of bronze, paint, and marble facades of various colors. By analyzing the residue on these sarcophagi, museum staff is able to determine which natural colors the early Christians used to paint these sarcophagi and, luckily for us, the Pio Cristiano had just installed monitors depicting some of the sarcophagi that were on display in full and living color. We were delighted to find out from Dr. Utro that we would be among the first to reap the benefits of these new monitors which were only installed on the Friday before our Monday visit.

After spending a couple of hours wandering the Pio Cristiano museum and looking at a number of sarcophagi depicting early Christian women, we eventually made our way through the rest of the Vatican Museums before arriving at the Sistine Chapel and finally St. Peter’s Basilica.

I didn’t really know how I’d feel about St. Peter’s. Would I be impressed by the size and the grandeur of it all? Would I be disappointed by the amount of resources and wealth poured into it rather than into the care of the sick, the poor, the oppressed? When we finally walked in, I was surprised to find that I had no strong reaction – it was if I had walked into yet another part of the museums. I certainly didn’t feel as though I was standing on holy ground as I had in some of the other churches and catacombs that we visited. And there’s something telling about that.

Then, our tour guide asked us if we wanted to see John Paul II. Our group was almost unanimous in voicing a very polite but adamant “no.” We headed straight for John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, instead. These are certainly my kind of people.

We returned to our guesthouse and prayed together a “Voices that Challenge” prayer service. We listened to the words of victims of sexual abuse, women who felt a call to ordination, men who felt a call to both married life and ordination, members of the LGBTQ community and those calling for the Church to recognize its own racism and to take a stronger stand with people of color. Our response was a sung, “Open our ears, God, help us to hear your voice. Open our ears, God, help us to hear.”

At the end of the day, aware of all that Pope Francis is trying to change in the church, standing in solidarity with all the women and men who have been hurt by the church, and feeling empowered by the women and men who have worked for Vatican II and other Church reforms for for decades, I made one last prayer of my own before falling asleep: “Saint John XIII: Presente.”