Lost & Found in The Eternal City

The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican (St. Peter’s Basilica) Photo Credit: Shequila Purnell-Saunders

Part 2 of 3

Part 1: Florence | Part 3 Naples

Sometimes I wonder if I am the most cliché version of a Catholic woman you’ll ever meet. I took first communion in a dress too young for my long legs. I was a fast-tailed but naive rebellious Catholic schoolgirl who, without irony, allowed my high school boyfriend to nickname me Bambi.

Maybe I’m unique, though. The number of Black Catholics in the U.S., anyway, has always been dwarfed by Baptists — I know this both from firsthand experience and as one of a handful of people who once did God’s work as a religion reporter in this country.

We’d all probably like to believe our faith journeys are fascinatingly rare, so let’s go with the latter, if you’ll humor me.

My journey to faith, which has waxed and waned over the years, has only strengthened in the years since my mother’s death six years ago. That’s been surprising because my understanding of Catholicism was shaped by the mystery and fear that began as a girl standing and kneeling beside her in churches throughout the Northeast. Her unstable mental health was the most predictable thing about her aside from her absolute devotion to Catholicism.

The path to my mother’s heart, to understanding her with any clarity beyond the constant clouds of her unmedicated borderline personality and bipolar disorders, was through Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I first became a believer because I longed to know and understand my mother, before I learned that she was as ultimately as unknowable as any sacred mystery.

But it was Zora Neale Hurston who said everybody has to go to God for themselves. Hours and days and years of weekly mass with and without my devoted Catholic mother taught me that my heart would confess even when my mouth does not. I found that I could never bring all of myself to organized religion no matter how hard I tried; that I would need to make my own faith journey and community, as I have made family to supplement my own over the years.

Catholicism, too, still wages institutional sexism against the women religious, the lifeblood and social justice warriors that have kept the reputation and most important work of the church alive in ways I can’t co-sign. When my mother was alive, even she stopped going to church for a while to consider the Church and Holy See’s inability to effectively root out, penalize and punish pedophiles past and present — and she had been attending Mass almost daily for decades since she 18.

But while we may not stay steeped in the structures that shape us, our traditions are still our traditions. Catholicism is seared on my heart and everything about it echoes around in the chambers of my mind. Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory Bes are the language of contrition that I will always default to, even as a constant sinner.

After years of stubborn independence, of collecting Catholic Calendars, hymnals and missals, my mother died from Stage IV cervical cancer six days before my 34th birthday. I have two of her belongings that are very meaningful to me: A black and red scarf that she loved to wear and a broken translucent rosary that she kept with her and said every day.

The first Christmas after she died, I went to the largest church I could find, knelt at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and wept. I missed her, but not as much as I missed what could have been, and that’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about.

When it was time to go to Rome, my first thought was of how excited my mother would have been to see the Vatican up close, to walk around in the city where the Holy Father himself was actually living. My trip there was for me, yes, but it was also for her.


The Flavian Amphitheater is the literal arena I’ve been reading about.

Our first stop in Rome, was a tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, where the Eternal City was founded, a marvel of green hills with lush olive trees, bay leaves & other herbs. I liked the hill but really got into the Colosseum.

Part of my love of the arena is this Teddy Roosevelt quote, delivered in April 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’m also a huge fan of the movie “Gladiator” and I feel compelled to watch it whenever it’s on (I blame some combination of loving that Jay-Z sampled part of it, my fascination with epics and the superb acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe).

There were once 50,000 marble seats to hold families who came to the arena to watch games, but damage over time changed the structure immensely.

It was, to me, another affirmation that part of being a professional artist is being a woman of action instead of a person attuned to the voices of critics or naysayers, mired in analysis paralysis. Standing in the middle of something so many centuries old has a way of speaking to you directly. At least, on vacation, that’s how everything you experience feels.

You’re operating outside of the time and energy demands of your daily life, for one. Because, in my case, I had no Internet connection much of the time, it allowed for deep processing of the information and history I was taking in about the world around me and how it connected with my personal experience.

I don’t even remember what this is but I just thought it was cool-looking.

The next day, we went to Vatican City, where we saw the incredible Vatican museums, which I knew very little about, and St. Peter’s Basilica. If Mom hadn’t been desperately afraid of planes and flying, I know she would have visited at least once in her life to try and find Pope John Paul II. You would have had to have met her to know that I’m not exaggerating here.

Mom had some blind spots because of her mental health, but she had some gifts, too. One of them was that she was very shrewd and resourceful, strategic in a way that people didn’t see coming. If you wanted to be mean, but not wrong, you might even say she was manipulative or cunning.

Anyway, it wasn’t coincidental that she chose the wealthiest parish in in Manhattan for us to attend even when we lived in the poorest Congressional district in the country in the Bronx. Once, after Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, said mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, she rushed us from the front pew (she insisted on sitting there whenever possible during 10 a.m. mass), grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me along to meet with him behind the altar. She had zero shame or self-consciousness about the fact that we were basically random black women rolling up on a Cardinal of New York City’s most famous Catholic church.

The Parnassus, featuring Apollo, the Muses, patrons of the arts, Homer, Virgil and Sappho.

She wanted him to bless me and pray for us, and even though he paused, he complied. I remember shyly taking his blessing, even as I was aware of how unusual it was.

In the Vatican Museums, I was struck most by the beautiful work of Raphael, called the Prince of the Renaissance by our tour guide. In particular, a stark painting in the Room of Heliodorus stood out among all the rest, “St. Peter Delivered From Prison,” above the window facing the Belevedere courtyard, moved me greatly because of the way the light frames the angel who delivered the first pope from prison, both within the painting and streaming in from the window.

St. Peter Delivered From Prison.

This had a deeper impact on me than the Sistine Chapel, which I didn’t expect, but also because the Sistine Chapel — the most famous work that everyone comes to the Vatican to see and what most people know Michaelangelo for — is where I got lost.

Yes, that’s correct. I lost my tour group. I did not have cell phone service. And I was in the middle of the thickest crowds of iPhone-photo-art-framing people you would ever want to meet.

I was with them, in hearing range, as we walked through the museums holding more contemporary art (including Jacob Lawrence, a brother I was so delighted to see there!) We were instructed to meet at a certain time on the other side of the Sistine Chapel, but, in my defense, our lovely tour guide didn’t specify which exit and didn’t mention that there were two.

You are not allowed to take photos in the Sistine Chapel, so if you’ve seen some, those are the people who went rogue and snuck a photo despite the loud yelling of the guards who repeat every five seconds in broken English, “No photo!” or hiss into elevated microphones to the awed crowd, “Shhhhhhhhhhhh!”

It was so chaotic, frankly, to try and take in the beauty of the work, stand aside with a crowd in the center of the room or mill along with a bigger group in the main flow of things, that even in retrospect it seems inevitable that I would be so rattled that I’d end up taking the wrong exit.

But wrong is relative. I definitely felt like getting away from the chaos inside the chapel a little early allowed me to luxuriate away from the group for a bit. I totally had time!

I found the first rosary that I wanted for myself, made of Amethyst. Good thing I left a little early! Even if my iPhone wasn’t transmitting anything else of use, was at least good for keeping track of time and helping me take nice photos.

So as the meeting time approached and I went to where I thought the group would be, I panicked because I couldn’t hear anyone in my tour radio AND I didn’t see anyone familiar. Because, it turns out, they were somewhere else entirely — on the other side of the Sistine Chapel. Starting the tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.

One of Michaelangelo’s Pietas.

Thirty very long, harried minutes later, after push-running my way back through the way I came, including another manic stroll through the loud and crowded Sistine Chapel, running down the actual correct steps to the Basilica, the crackling voice of our tour guide came back to life in my ears.

They were near, of all places, the confessionals. I found them at the end of the tour, relieved but overwhelmed. But of course, I would find them inside the church.

“It’s a miracle!” my friend Shequila exclaimed, and the whole group laughed. I thanked my mother silently. My friends gave me a little more time to wander around inside the church after the tour was over, knowing how much it meant to me to be there.

The altar at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The tours that we were on allowed us to skip lines, but I waited on a little line so that I could have a few moments inside a smaller chapel inside of St. Peter’s. In that ornate, quiet, sacred space, I lit a candle in her memory. It was the first time in a while that I was able to share my tears with her and whisper to her at a volume that couldn’t be heard above the low murmur of the constant crowds, like a prayer, “Look at how beautiful. In heaven, everything must be adorned this way, but on earth, I’ll have to keep this as my touchstone, my only possibility, unless, I get to see you again. Thank you. I miss you. I love you. We made it.”

Before I left, I bought her a new pearl rosary. It sits on my writing desk next to the old one. It represents the grace she embodied in spite of everything.

I keep the broken rosary and the new one next to her picture on top of the folded scarf that still smells like her. They remind me that both things are always true: We can feel broken by the past, and the places where we have been broken allow us to let the light in, to feel grace in the present.

The next day, bright and early, we would take the final leg of our journey to Naples, where I would get to see my family and a dear middle school friend.

Writer, Journalist & Educator. Author of I Can Write The World & a few other books. joshundasanders.com

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