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Touring the Vatican

The first time I went to the Vatican, I didn't get in. I turned up just as they were closing. The second time, a year later, I missed again, once more cutting it too close. I have a chronic lateness problem. But 20 years later, on a typically hot Roman day, under an eye-wateringly blue sky, I arrived at the visitor entrance at a quarter to nine in the morning, before it opened, and finally made it inside.

I am a practicing Catholic, sometimes generously mistaken for a devout one, and believe me it is a mistake. Yes, I go to mass regularly and know and respect the covenants of the faith, but I break most of the commandments—and might break the rest if those sins weren't against my own moral code, which I have to admit is not telephone-book thick. I'm also that awkward kind of Catholic, like so many, many others, who over the years has come to separate the formalities and obligations of the Church from a belief in God.

But the Vatican is the epicenter, spiritually and physically, of Catholic orthodoxy—all the more so now, as Pope Benedict XVI, by all accounts an unbending theological conservative, takes office. For a visitor like me, the question is how to square the grandiose certitude of the Vatican with my own more subtly shaded spiritual beliefs. I don't claim to have the answers, and here I was in a place that specializes in providing all of them.

The Vatican may be the world's greatest museum. In fact it's a museum of museums. I swear they have museums they've lost, as you or I might lose keys. When I was there, my guide, looking to take me to the Sistine Chapel by a shortcut, stumbled across a vast plain of a hall, part of which was closed to the public. On one side was a wide stairway leading down to a dimly lit space—a great room filled with Chinese and other antiquities, marble lions, statues, and tall-as-a-person vases, some millennia old. Many of these priceless works of art and invaluable markers of history had been given as gifts to various popes over the years—and sometimes not so willingly given.

Yet the Vatican seems curiously sterile, and lacking in human scale. In its museums and public spaces a ponderous silence carries fragments of visitors' conversations like dust on a beam of pallid sunlight. A lifeless, institutional reverence wafts through halls that now chronicle the history they once contained, halls wallpapered with art. Even the magnificent St. Peter's Basilica, breathtaking when first seen upon approach, overwhelming when entered, seems bereft of spirituality. Its awesome marble statues; serene, gold-laced caskets of popes and saints; and huge, brilliantly rich paintings of biblical scenes and figures are polished and illuminated to advantage. The giant cupola is so high above the ground that the sunlight is weak by the time it hits the floor, washing the Basilica in a sober, blue-gray light.

Mass takes place with all the passion of an art installation projection: I see it, it's engaging—it might even be riveting—but, improbably, I just don't feel it. I'd been warned that for a devout Catholic, entering St. Peter's can precipitate a profound religious experience, but for me the overall effect was of a giant arena with the seats removed. (All the missing pews are returned for masses celebrated by the pope.) It's as if God, like Elvis, has left the building.

I was raised a Catholic, sort of, in the sense that my father, having given me his full name and ethnic heritage and, he presumed, everything else worthwhile, decided he might as well throw in his religion, which was then like an old sweater he didn't wear anymore. I don't mean this cynically; he personally had no use for religion but meant well: he knew it was a good influence, and England's Catholic schools in the 1960's provided a better education—and were far stricter—than other schools. Around the same time, my father started Penthouse and began building it into one of the world's largest privately held magazine empires. For 30 years he was a prime target of religious extremists (which only added to his allure and success) and an evergreen lightning rod for right-wing fund-raising.

At 11 I became an altar boy, by accident—I thought I was joining the church soccer team. An hour into the indoctrination I was still oblivious, and when the priest passed a saint's relic (a finger) to each one of us to kiss, I thought, Boy, they must really take winning seriously. But no soccer balls appeared and I was getting a little antsy, so I asked the priest when did we start practicing and where exactly was the field?He looked at me with a disgust that seemed to be evenly divided between my idiocy and his, in having accepted me.

Nonetheless I became a diligent, devoted, and even record-setting altar boy, serving so many masses a week that I was eventually told I needn't come quite so often. I was virtually trolling the sacristy, looking for priests who might be about to say mass. In my early teens I shook off Catholicism like rainwater, and thought no more about it until my late twenties, when one day in New York I walked into a church to pray privately, found there was a mass going on, and stayed for it and reconnected. More important, I chose it—voluntarily—and realized that nothing I'd ever felt about religion or gotten from the church had ever left me. I picked up where I'd left off, like a great book put down, in this case 15 years before. A couple of years later I went to confession—the most profound and humbling act a Catholic can perform: telling a complete stranger everything you've spent most of your energy lying to everyone else about. I started with the required admission, "Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it's been about seventeen years since—" but he stopped me, saying, "You don't have to tell me how long it's been; we haven't said that for thirteen years."

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