Walking around Reykjavik, especially on its main shopping street of Laugavegur, it’s impossible to miss the arresting white monolith that thrusts into the sky like a gleaming dagger. This is Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.

Hallgrimskirkja front

In stark contrast to downtown Reykjavik, where most buildings are colorful, blocky and low to the ground, Hallgrimskirkja seizes attention with its modern starkness, expansive arms and defiant height. Designed in 1937, completed in 1986 and refurbished in 2009, it is timeless—something out of a fantasy or science fiction novel. It could be Tolkien’s Isengard, or maybe the church where a chubby little Kryptonian could have been christened Kal-el.

Leif Ericsson statue at Hallgrimskirkja

In front stands a statue of Leif Ericson, the Icelandic explorer who was the first European to land in North America. Leif’s father, Erik the Red, was a Viking outlaw who was exiled from both Norway and Iceland, and eventually discovered Greenland.

Hallgrimskirkja up close

Behind its imposing facade, Hallgrimskirkja is all serenity and simplicity.

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Mother of all churches

Most tourists who visit Rome actually end up visiting two cities in one: Rome and Vatican City. That’s just what we did on our second day.

There’s a dress code for entry into St. Peter’s Basilica and the Musei Vaticani: covered knees, shoulders and toes. I was glad that one of my favorite dresses (which I haven’t used all year!) turned out to be Vatican-appropriate. Later I saw them letting people in sandals in, so the ban on toes was probably relaxed for the summer. Kasi naman, Jinit Jackson talaga!

I don’t normally wear hats, but after just five minutes standing in St. Peter’s Square under the broiling sun, I had to break out my Japanese sun protection gear (from Uniqlo, naturally).

It was funny to see all the overheated tourists “queuing” under the shadow of the obelisk for some much-needed shade, like a giant human sundial.

Speaking of queues, our wait to get into St. Peter’s wasn’t that long… maybe just about 10-15 minutes. In dry, baking heat though, it can seem like forever. Still, it’s a good time to just take in all of St. Peter’s Square, another Bernini masterpiece. The architect’s design of the colonnades (those curved rows of pillars) were inspired by Christ’s open arms welcoming His flock; topping them are statues of 140 saints, many of them martyrs of the early church.

At the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica stands a member of the Vatican “fashion police,” something like an ultra-conservative bouncer who denies entry to visitors who haven’t complied with the dress code. Ah, memories of high school.

Admission to the Basilica is free, but you can get an audio guide for €10. All the art and history crammed into St. Peter’s makes it one of those places audio guides are made for. But it also works the other way: there is just so much history and information (narrated by what seems to be a rhapsodically ecstatic priest, lol) that I literally felt my head was going to explode. So I turned off my audio guide two-thirds of the way in.

Of course, you can just wander around and soak it all up by yourself. Because there is a lot to soak up. And I mean A LOT. After all, St. Peter’s is the mother of all churches, in every possible way.

I can’t even begin to describe the scale of the basilica, or the amount of art within its walls (not least of which is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta), or even the treasures beneath it (an underground graveyard city called the Necropolis, plus the graves of all the Popes dating back to the first Apostle, Peter himself).

I have to admit: I found the experience overwhelming. Not just visually, but emotionally. I found myself in tears three times: first, at the entrance (where I took the photo above). Second, at a small chapel where we caught up to the hourly Adoration of the Holy Sacrament. And third, at the altar, which is built over the place where St. Peter (that’s the famous statue of him on the right) was crucified. A mass was being celebrated at the time of our visit.

People are all at different places with regards to their relationship to the Church, and in their personal practice of faith. So not everyone might not react to St. Peter’s as emotionally as I did, or even understand my reaction.

But for me, St. Peter’s was a powerful reminder of the earliest days of the Church. Before wars in Christ’s name, before hierarchy, scandal, politics, before our own CBCP and Pajero bishops of today. When there was simply Christ himself—a force, love, a power, and a mystery so strong men (simple but honest men) died to follow him and profess their belief in him.

I needed that reminder. At the time, I was simply overcome by tears without really knowing what I was crying about. But now I also understand that I was crying for that time when we—when the Church was so close to Christ. How long ago it all was.
How do we ever find our way back?

Sometimes I feel like being a Catholic in these times entails a willingness to be seen as backward. Kumbaga e nawala na siya sa uso. It’s been a long way from the earliest days of the Church; along the way, its history has become laden with all the other things that characterize a history that is more human than divine. Sometimes I wonder why I still believe, and wish I could speak about my belief more powerfully and convincingly to people who question my belief, or have lost their own.

Being in St. Peter’s reminded me that I’m not the only one who believed without having all the answers. That I believe because of what I have experienced—and experience is simply so personal, it’s non-transferable. I was reminded that other people experienced it too, something so moving and powerful they were even willing to die for it. I don’t know if I would do the same, today. But they did. And that whispers to me, maybe I’m not crazy for believing. Or if I’m crazy, at the very least, I’m in good company.

Okay, I’m crying again. Enough big questions for now. The only question that remains is: How do you solve a problem like Maria?

That’s what I imagined these nuns were discussing as they crossed St. Peter’s Square, haha.

I was feeling rather emotionally drained after our visit to the Basilica (plus my feet were killing me), so for about an hour we just sat in St. Peter’s Square and watched people. I must have seen more nuns and priests go by in that one hour than I did in four years of Catholic high school. Then again, how could I forget that the Mother Ship was just a few meters away?

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