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Symbols of Christianity filling world with meaning that transcends our differences

ROME — They gather on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, a group of 15 men and women sporting fluorescent orange baseball caps. You can see tour groups like this everywhere in Rome this summer, wearing matching scarves or T-shirts, or matching caps. And at first this group seems no different than any other identically accessorized tour. Not until they take off their caps and bow their heads, do they set themselves apart.

As they begin to pray, you realize their intent.

"Intent . . . that's the fundamental difference," explains Galey Colosimo. Colosimo was one of more than 40 Utahns who traveled together to Rome and to the Holy Land earlier this year. "We weren't simply there to be tourists. The pilgrim views the experience as sacred, whereas the tourist sees it as informational, educational — or even recreational, I suppose."

The fact that this is a Jubilee year, the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's life, made it even more meaningful, he says. Colosimo will never forget walking into St. Peter's for the first time. Nor will he forget how it felt to worship in that basilica, in a small chapel near Peter's tomb, while, in nearby chapels, pilgrims from a dozen different countries heard Mass in their own languages.

For Don Shafer, who led the tour, it was meaningful that his entire family came along. Some Shafers are Protestant; some are Catholic; some came from Utah, others from the Midwest. There they were, all together, walking in the footsteps of the apostles.

Shafer had seen all the holy sites before. Still, he found fresh insight. "We could bring Christ into the world right now, through our own lives. . . . When you visit a place like this, you want to strive more, to seek forgiveness from those you have offended. You want to start treating people with the value that God so obviously has placed on each one of us."

And it is obvious, says Shafer. "He loved us. He made us. He died for us."

But if pilgrims are struck anew by Christ's sacrifice, you have to wonder what the regular tourists think about the Jubilee observances. Because it is not just in Rome and not just in Catholic churches that the banners fly. The year 2000 is proclaimed in the Anglican cathedrals as well, in England, and in every tiny parish church in France, Switzerland and Austria. Also, the British Library has a special display about Bibles. And also, as if it weren't enough that Christ is the subject of 95 percent of the historical collection of every major art museum, the National Gallery explores Christ's suffering in a special exhibit called "Seeing Salvation."

The symbols of Christianity are everywhere this summer. Were you to visit Europe, you might find yourself searching for some average tourists, asking them if the Jubilee year makes their trip more meaningful, spiritually, than they had expected.

You'd try to be a bit selective about whom you interview, of course. Many people obviously view the churches as secular sites. In Paris, for example, you see a woman talking on her cell phone in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In Florence, in the Church of the Duomo, a man's beeper goes off as he approaches the altar.

The first three people you approach — men who were raised, variously, in the Church of England, the Church of Wales and the Lutheran Church — describe nothing more than architectural interest in these sites. They say they will never again put money in a collection box, or attend a service, but nonetheless they are interested in the history and the construction of the cathedrals.

In France, one day, you strike up a conversation with a woman as you are both leaving a cathedral. She has helped you translate a Jubilee banner. (It says, "Jesus Christ: Yesterday, Today and Forever") She says she was raised Catholic in the United States. You ask her if she finds that Mass is universal, if coming into a church in France feels like coming home.

Well, she says, yes, the Mass is the same. You say you are inspired by all the years of tradition, that it's thrilling to think of how many times the same prayers have been said.

At this point she interrupts. She lets you know that her feelings about church are complex, deep, and in some ways painful. She says, in fact, that if you insist on asking her about her faith, you will ruin her afternoon — possibly her entire vacation.

After this, you don't interview any more tourists.

Still, you can't stop thinking about the tourists and the pilgrims and about intent.

And eventually you realize that you were the one who was taken by surprise. That you are the one who came to Europe during the Jubilee year with no idea of being anything but a tourist — only to be swept away.

It happens on the very first day of your trip, when you make a late afternoon visit to the cathedral of Durham, in Northern England. Too late for a tour, you end up attending Evensong, the daily worship service. And you find that worship is more meaningful than a tour could ever be.

There's a small notice printed in the order of worship to tell tourists what to expect when they come to Evensong. "This is a tiny fragment of something else; a part of the worship offered to God by Christian people every hour of the day and night, in every part of the world . . . it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress, a conversation between God and his people which began before you were born and will continue until the end of time."

Quite by accident, you get caught up in the conversation. You find yourself trying to arrange your itinerary to visit one church every evening and at least two on a Sunday morning. You get to the point where you want nothing more than to begin and end each day on your knees, in a vaulted cathedral or tiny village church, letting the liturgy wash over you, making you whole, making you new, connecting you to those millions of Christians who have gone before.

Oddly enough, the desire persists even after you leave the English-speaking countries. You find you don't care if the chants and prayers and hymns are in French — or Welch, or Italian or Latin. The particulars cease to matter. Surrounded by the symbols and sacraments of Christianity, you find that what you feel goes beyond language, that you can be grateful without words, you can add to the conversation just by being there and being reverent.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com