Why we should see Rome through eyes, not phones

We arrived in Rome on a Thursday morning, jet-lagged but determined to stay up the entire day so we could sleep that night. And so we wandered around the Vatican, met up with some friends for a quick hello, grabbed our first taste of Roman mozzarella with some espresso to wake us up and then quickly found ourselves in St. Peter’s Basilica for vespers with the Holy Father for the reading of the papal bull announcing Jubilee 2025.

St. Peter’s is always captivating, even when you’ve been in motion for 28 hours and the exhaustion of travel is hitting. But as we sat and listened to what we began jokingly calling “a longhorn bull” (because, my goodness, was it a long proclamation), I noticed something odd among the crowd inside the basilica.

Nearly everyone, from ambassadors sitting close to the front so they could greet the Holy Father to tourists who stumbled into a papal event because they were passing out free tickets all day, was staring at their phones. In some form or fashion, whether scrolling mindlessly or snapping photos, screens were viewed. And as we sat in plastic brown chairs in the most iconic church in all the world, no one was looking up. Almost everyone, I soon realized, even myself, was looking down or through a glowing box.

A phone-driven world

I wonder, when Pope Julius II began the construction of the second, and what we now have as, St. Peter’s Basilica, if he ever would’ve imagined that people would flock to a sacred space and treat it more like a museum than a church. I wonder if he ever imagined we’d stand in line, in the hot, blazing Roman sun surrounded by a key-shaped colonnade, just to go inside and snap grainy photos of captivating art rather than gaze upon it in the moment.

It’s not to say we can’t capture an image of something memorable and beautiful. It’s that we often just snap the photo, look at it and stop looking beyond the screen to then see the real thing.

As I sat there, lamenting this culture that treats churches like museums and places to simply photograph something pretty, the procession for vespers began. First the seminarians, processional cross held high. Then priests, bishops, cardinals; the hierarchy of the Church on display. And then, one by one, as if we were holding wands aloft à la Dumbledore’s death in “Harry Potter” (a millennial reference, if ever I’ve made one), up went the phones, cameras turned on, the snapping beginning. Here comes Pope Francis, wheeled down the main aisle of St. Peter’s, smiling and gently waving, greeting those who have filled this church to hear his voice and catch a glimpse of him. But no one was looking at him. Everyone seemed to be looking at their screens. With arms extended up and cameras angled down, you could see Pope Francis through the phone screen seemingly better than if you were just trying to see him through the crowd over peoples’ heads. Shutters clicked. Screens flashed. Grainy images of our supreme pontiff were deposited into digital photo albums, half of which I imagine will never be looked at again. Here is the Holy Father, and all anyone wanted was a picture of him. No one seemed to want to see him.

This is sometimes what it seems our phone-driven world has become: a place where the device that can do it all, does do it all, including “seeing” for us, preventing us from seeing what’s right in front of us.

‘Being’ in Rome

It’s why, on what was a work trip to Rome for the World Meeting on Human Fraternity to collaborate with 50 other digital missionaries, I decided to spend so little time on my phone. I snapped photos here and there, of a church as I walked in, of a saint’s tomb where I prayed, of even the Holy Father as he walked into a private audience with the attendees of the world meeting. But this time, my first time back to the Eternal City since 2018, I decided to try to simply “be” in Rome, rather than see it through a screen.

Perhaps that’s the only way Rome can be experienced. Not through a screen where a picture is displayed, but with your own two eyes, seeing what’s before you and feeling it within. There is no way you can capture the size of St. Peter’s with an iPhone. You can just feel small as you stand inside. No photo can truly show the shine of the ceiling of St. Mary Major or just how colossal the statues of the apostles are in St. John Lateran. The grainy picture of the pope on 5x zoom only gives evidence that you were in the same place as him. It shows neither the wrinkles on his face nor the glint in his eye. It’s just your proof that you were there, in a social media world where we feel the need to prove we have done cool things.

Now yes, at this point, I must admit the absurd privilege I had on this particular trip to Rome, a working trip that included dinner on the terrace of St. Peter’s Basilica, an after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s and a private audience with Pope Francis, all of which was professionally photographed, so I didn’t really have to snap pictures to capture the moments.

But save for the photo of me handing Pope Francis a Lego pope, a pair of Sock Religious socks and a letter from my six-year-old daughter, none of it needed to be captured on film or displayed on a screen. All of it meant far more knowing it had happened, knowing it was something I experienced for real that was mine and mine alone to see, feel and now remember.

Perhaps this is why you can’t take photos in the Sistine Chapel. I’m going to choose to believe that’s why. Everywhere else in Rome, the cameras click and the selfies snap and the screens glow. But in one tiny chapel where so much has happened and so much still will, under a ceiling painted by a talented and tortured artist who begged for artistic license from the very same pope who wanted St. Peter’s built in the first place, you can’t do anything but stand there and look up.

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A lesson at the Sistine Chapel

On this trip, with this group, we had after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel. We could’ve, despite the “wink wink” instructions not to, taken some photos. A quick selfie snap. A hidden camera shutter. But none of us, the 50 people literally flown to Rome to digitally capture a meeting of world leaders in economics, education, sports, justice, peace, the arts and peacekeeping, took photos. We put the screens away. We simply stood there. Jaws slack. Mouths agape. Eyes flitting back and forth across art that can only be felt, and seen, for real.

As my husband and I stood there, our phones tucked into our bags, gazing upon Michelangelo’s masterpiece, we noticed more people from the world meeting coming into the Sistine Chapel. Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, and Senator Bill Nelson, administrator of NASA. And then, as if we were in some unique Catholic version of Clue mixed with a bad joke, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks were in the Sistine Chapel with a Stetson and a guitar.

My husband and I danced to Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love with the Boy” at our wedding. A love song about Katie and Tommy, from the moment we met, we would laugh at how true to life it was for us. And here, in a place where photos aren’t allowed and beauty surrounds you, stood the woman who sang a song we’ve loved for a decade. We walked over to them, Trisha Yearwood in a gorgeous dress with five-inch heels and Garth Brooks in his typical black getup, the black cowboy hat tucked under his arm. I don’t think the mostly Italian crowd knew who he was and so, as we sheepishly approached them to tell Trisha what her song meant to us and share our love of their music, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, in the Sistine Chapel, kindly talked with us for a few minutes, asked us how we found ourselves in this odd collective of people that night, and thanked us for saying hello.

And no photo was taken. No selfie was snapped. No screen was looked at. We just lived the moment in full, as surreal and as absurd as we could possibly imagine.

Perhaps that’s why we should put our phones away more. Because it’s only then, when the screens don’t pull our faces down, that we’re looking up enough to see what truly could never be dreamed up or expected. Like how country music stars, whose songs you’ve played since childhood, are standing in the Sistine Chapel where the pope you’d meet the very next morning was elected.

Rome, for all its beauty that’s worth seeing, is best experienced with your eyes, and never through the screen.

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