The craziest thing I saw in Rome was a cat sanctuary.
Let me explain.
Over Christmas break, I traveled to Rome with some friends -- all of whom share my nerdy enthusiasm for religion in general and Catholicism in particular. This makes Rome kind of like our Disneyland. Everywhere there are churches and catacombs and Caravaggio interpreting the lives of the saints and even Pope Francis bobblehead dolls. An evening stroll for gelato inevitably held at least one geek-out session: Walking by the burial place of St. Augustine or the college attended by St. Ignatius.
Beaufort County boasts a pretty rich history, with a scattering of forts and historic homes that have stood since the Civil War or earlier. Yet the majority of our structures are new, built in my lifetime. "New" in Rome meant those trendy baroque ceilings they started crafting in the 16th century.
While waiting for a bus in the city square, we asked our chaplain (who had attended school in Rome for several years and was also our unofficial tour guide) about the pile of ruins -- mostly crumbling walls and columns -- in the middle of Largo di Torre Argentina.
"That's actually where Julius Caesar died," Father Michael explained.
"Ides of March Caesar and 'Et tu, Brute?' Caesar?" I asked, intrigued by yet another ancient landmark.
"The same one," Father Michael answered. "But now it's a cat sanctuary."
I had already started to cross the street to investigate, but paused to clarify what I had just heard. "A cat sanctuary? Wha ..." Then the smell hit me, and it was obvious Father Michael was not making this up. There was no evidence of Caesar's illustrious rule among the ruins, just the overpowering odor of hundreds of cats that had taken up residence with lots of attitude and no litter boxes.
Earlier that day we had seen the bones of St. Peter. He was crucified upside-down on a hill reserved for criminals; the authorities who put him to death couldn't stop Christians from seeking out his remains and finding inspiration from the man to whom Christ gave "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
The Roman Empire believed that they could extinguish Christianity with a few executions and some hungry lions. Walking through the Roman Forum and seeing the majesty of their architecture, it's easy to imagine that the followers of Christ could have become quickly discouraged by an empire that was quick to execute their rag-tag group of fishermen-turned-preachers.
Yet they weren't discouraged. Undaunted by the threat that conversion posed to their lives, the early Christians were downright enthusiastic about sacrificing everything to hasten their reunion with Christ in heaven. St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first bishops of the church, wrote to his congregation on his way to his execution in the year 107, exclaiming, "Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, whereby I may attain unto God. I am the wheat of God, and am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, in order that I may be found the pure bread of Christ ..."
I found it ironic that the memory of Caesar -- the Roman dictator who aspired to become a god -- now has a minor place among stray cats. Meanwhile, the hill where St. Peter -- a fisherman preaching the news of Jesus, God who became man -- was executed is now the site of the largest church in the world.
Faith is not about having the biggest clubhouse, but it's edifying to consider that the evidence for Christ can be found beyond the pages of Scripture. It's also in our history, in what an ancient city counts among its ruins and riches.