Saturday, October 04, 2008

Landmarks of Religious Rome: Michelangelo's Dome... and Moroni's Trumpet

After years of warming relations with the Catholic world, albeit punctuated by the occasional doctrinal spat, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints moved earlier today to heighten its profile in the Pope's backyard, revealing its plans to build a temple in Rome.

Announced this morning by church President Thomas Monson at the Mormons' twice-yearly General Conference in Salt Lake City, the temple -- location to be determined -- will be the first for Italy's approximately 23,000 LDS. While some of the church's founding members gained converts on journeys to the Bel Paese (much of it still under the temporal control of the Popes at the time), the Mormons shuttered their Italian mission by 1862, only reopening it in the early 1950s.

With most of their worship conducted in smaller meetinghouses or chapels, Mormons hold the temple in a regard similar to a shrine. Always situated on a prominent plot and marked by the towering spire topped by a gilded Angel Moroni, only the latter may play host to the most sacred LDS rites, including weddings, and only Mormons in good standing may enter a temple following its dedication.

On their Utah home-turf, the LDS have a long history of faithful friendship with the Catholic community on the Wasatch since its first recorded Mass took place in 1859; still encompassing the entire state, the Salt Lake diocese was founded 31 years later.

In 1866, the plot for Utah's first Catholic church was granted by Brigham Young, its early bishops were given prime Sunday-evening airtime on Mormon-owned radio to address their small, scattered flock, and both 1993's renovation of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and the parish's ongoing community efforts have been made possible in large part due to the largesse of the LDS leadership. Beyond the Western state, the Mormons' famed network of relief workers and aid materials has an extensive history of teaming up with Catholic Charities on humanitarian missions, and seeing it as a "classroom of peace," the LDS have readily and quietly provided volunteers and support to the Pope-led celebrations of World Youth Day.

In recent years, the ties between the faiths became even warmer thanks to several shared stances on social issues and outreach-friendly leaders on both sides. Long the diocese's closest ally among the LDS' top brass, Monson -- who became the Mormons' "prophet, seer and revelator" in February on the death of the church's longtime chief, Gordon Hinckley -- has been described as being "as comfortable in the Madeleine as he is in the Salt Lake Temple," and in a first, two members of the church's Quorum of the Twelve (the Mormons' equivalent of the College of Cardinals) took part in the ecumenical prayer gathering in Washington during Pope Benedict's April visit.

The relationship, however, hasn't been without its occasional differences and difficulties. A 2001 responsum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled Mormon baptisms invalid, and earlier this year the Congregation for the Clergy ordered the withholding of Catholic baptismal records from LDS genealogists amid fears the names were being used in the latter's practice of baptism by proxy (which have been performed on John Paul II and Benedict XVI both).

In the trenches, earlier this year three Mormon missionaries were disciplined by their leadership after photographs showing them mocking a statue and the sanctuary of a Catholic church in New Mexico were posted on the web. And in Utah, where Hispanic immigration has been the driving force behind the recent explosion of the state's Catholic population (which has more than tripled since 1990), the possibility of a Latino prelate's appointment to Salt Lake following then-Bishop George Niederauer's 2005 transfer to the archbishopric of San Francisco was reportedly nixed after LDS officials expressed concerns over the potential for friction at the community level. More recently, it was announced that to mark the Madeleine's centennial in 2009, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will headline two free shows in the cathedral, opening its annual arts festival.

The 12th temple in Europe and 145th overall, the planned Rome project will be the LDS' first in the Mediterranean. Amid a global swell in numbers over the last three decades beyond their traditional US base, a majority of the 14 million Mormon faithful now live overseas.