A Pagan Monument Brings Faiths Together


A Gregorian chant sung by men from nine countries reverberated off the nearly 2,000-year-old interior walls of the Pantheon, this city's most ancient intact structure, at the start of a special New Year's Eve religious service. It paid tribute to spiritual glories of the millennium while calling for reconciliation between the world's great faiths.

Held in the heart of the city at the center of Christianity, where the Gregorian calendar was formally established to mark the years following the birth of Jesus, the themes of the Mass touched on the philosophical and spiritual questions of the modern era as well as those of the first millennium, when Rome was just as crowded, dusty, noisy and beautiful as it is today.

"One thousand years have passed, and what do we give thanks to?" asked the Rev. Hani Giuseppe, who led the prayers. "These 1,000 years have been full of love. We give a small, poor life, but we are not unknown to God. He has been faithful." In the third millennium, Giuseppe predicted, "He will not make us lack for anything."

Outside, in front of the Pantheon's immense granite columns, hundreds of Romans were crowded around outdoor tables at cafes, drinking spumante in jovial celebration despite the 40-degree weather. At the nearby 16th-century Piazza del Popolo, at St. Peter's Square a half-mile away, and at the presidential palace high atop the Quirinal hill, nearly a million other revelers gathered at two pop music concerts and a classical concert. Everywhere, the sound of fireworks echoed off Baroque architecture.

The Pantheon service was thronged by hundreds of celebrants, in part because of the structure's reputation for offering "a universal hug," said the Rev. Antonio Tedesco, who has overseen its restoration over the past seven years. "Here we pray for all good men."

At the service, the issue of reconciliation between "churches of the East and the West" was pressed by Martias Hubertus, a theology student whose mother is Greek and his father German.

He and others in the choir--from Mexico, Korea, America, Japan and other nations--then helped sing the "Te Deum," a hymn of thanks to God and a plea for salvation that dates from the fifth century. During the Mass, the sound of trumpets echoed around the spectacular dome before passing through its 30-foot skylight to the heavens.

Built shortly after the apostles Peter and Paul came to Rome, the Pantheon was created as a pagan temple to 12 classical deities--the first locale where many of those gods were worshiped. Renowned for its simple, harmonious design, which stands in sharp contrast to the Baroque splendor of the city's newer buildings, the Pantheon influenced architects around the globe for much of both millennia of the Christian era.

"The idea of the Pantheon is all part of bringing together elements from different cultures," said Paolo Portoghesi, a prominent Italian urban planner. "It represents more than anything else, unity. It is the model dome in a city full of domes. It is, in a way, like a seed that then gave fruit."

Portoghesi incorporated several of its essential features into a mosque he designed here in the 1970s and 1980s--the largest in any non-Islamic nation. The mosque's construction along the banks of the Tiber River provoked one of Rome's greatest architectural controversies of the 20th century, and Portoghesi has said that during the height of the debate, he felt "totally isolated--criticized by important personalities [whose] unconfessed motive" was xenophobia about an influx of roughly 400,000 Muslims and Arab immigrants.

But Portoghesi said the fact that in the end Rome allowed the mosque to be built--using as a model the stepped exterior of the Pantheon's dome--conveys an optimistic message for the next millennium. "The premises are there to hope that the ideas of tolerance will finally take hold in the world," he said. "I accept, however, that this is based more on faith than rationality."

--R. Jeffrey Smith

A Majestic Moment And a Matter of Pride


Talk about a hard-working monarch! The 73-year-old Queen Elizabeth II marked the new millennium by walking from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere.

Actually, Her Majesty only had to stroll about six royal paces to achieve this feat. She marked the New Year at the massive billion-dollar Millennium Dome exhibition hall that the British government has put atop the Greenwich Meridian, the line of longitude that divides the globe between east and west.

Since the prime meridian is also the marker for Greenwich Mean Time, the starting point of the world's time zones, Britain has declared this London suburb to be the "home of time" and thus the "home of the millennium." The government went all out to claim the title. Britain has invested more than $6 billion on the dome and other millennial projects around the British Isles. That could be more than any other country spent on the celebration.

Why? National pride, that's why. The British people are acutely, intensely and painfully aware of what happened to their nation in the 20th century.

On Jan. 1, 1900, Britain was the political, military, financial and cultural superpower of the world. A century later, it is just one more smallish planet in a distant orbit around the mighty American sun. The "century of decline," as Prime Minister Tony Blair noted three months ago, has been hard to swallow for people who still belt out the beloved anthem "Rule, Britannia!" at every opportunity.

And so the British decided to spit in the face of history by celebrating the New Year as if they still ran the world. They staged "the biggest party on earth" in the biggest structure on earth--the Millennium Dome covers 20 acres, an area big enough to take in the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool in between.

With Her Majesty, wearing a festive orange suit, looking on from the royal box, thousands of singers and dancers--plus a troupe of trapeze artists in nude body stockings--entertained 10,000 invited guests. To London's delight, the dome's extravaganza was broadcast around the world. Even WBIG, a Washington oldies radio station, had a reporter on hand for live coverage.

The chimes of Big Ben, striking the midnight hour, played within the dome. The queen rose to her feet, the crowd counted the seconds, and then they sang another British contribution to global culture, "Auld Lang Syne."

It cost a billion dollars, and it lasted only one night. But at the stroke of midnight, the people of Britain once again felt that they lead the world.

--T.R. Reid