What happens when a priest who was a seminarian-tour guide at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and a newly married couple who are photographers work together on a travel project?
The answer is 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter’s and the Vatican (St. Benedict Press, 2015).
Father Jeffrey Kirby, the vicar of vocations of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., wrote the text, and Justin and Challiss Gaeta, also from the Charleston area, took the vast majority of photos for this beautiful book, which has an endorsement from Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The idea came from the two years Father Kirby spent as a tour guide while he was a seminarian studying in Rome.
“The idea was to share something beautiful about God with everyone,” he explained. “The basilica really is a catechism in marble and stone and really is the greatest show-and-tell of the Christian faith that anyone could ever imagine. All of it is a powerful lesson right in front of us.”
Father Kirby explained, for example, in St. Peter’s, the Pietà can be used to explain Mary’s role, the main aisle can illustrate the journey of faith, and the sanctuary is a sign of discipleship — these are just three of the 101 facts explained in the book.
During his earliest months leading tours, Father Kirby just gave tourists basic facts. “Then I realized I was presenting not just a tour of the church building, but a tour of the Catholic faith. I reorganized the tour in order to present it as a walking catechism.”
The Gaetas met through mutual friends after he returned from volunteering for the Church in Orissa, India. Soon, Justin and Challis became friends — a friendship that grew into dating. They married on May 30, 2014.
With experience in campus ministry, Justin is an assistant director for the Charleston Diocese’s vocations office, where he works with Father Kirby. Justin also started Thursday Night Productions, a photography-videography-print design side business; Father Kirby has commissioned him to make vocations-related videos.
“Both Justin and Challis do great work,” Father Kirby said of the two photographers. He approached them with the book idea, and St. Benedict Press commissioned the Gaetas to do the book’s photography.
“We were really there for work in Rome, but we saw this as a second honeymoon,” Challiss said, since they had been married just over four months when they went to photograph St. Peter’s Basilica.
At the Vatican
In Rome, “we were like pretty much any other tourists,” Challiss explained.
They were at St. Peter’s around 6am each morning. After a long day of work, they enjoyed strolls before dinner.
“We didn’t use any artificial lights,” Justin explained of each day’s work. “We dedicated full days to taking photos, which allowed us to catch different light on the images and statues throughout the day.”
The persistence led to some surprising and beautiful results. In one case, leaving the inside of the basilica at closing time, they captured some favorite shots of the statue of St. Peter atop the basilica amid the beautiful, rosy glow of the evening light.
And the morning sun once highlighted the details of the baptistery dome, making the gold glisten.
Some photos of Pope Francis also came as a surprise, including one where the Holy Father appears to be looking right at them.
“When you combine the openness of Pope Francis with those 101 surprising facts, you have a book that interests people — Catholics and non-Catholics — to begin with,” Justin said. “Father Kirby takes surprising facts — St. Peter’s Square is shaped like an oval — and tells you the why behind them. That opens the door to sharing the Christian faith, and most especially the Catholic faith.”
Another blessing for the newlyweds was attending the Oct. 19 beatification Mass for Pope Paul VI with two living popes present — Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Father Kirby noted the other “extras” for that Mass for the newlyweds: It was the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and also a strong reminder of Paul VI’s landmark pro-life marriage teaching in Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).
“This is something you tell your grandkids,” said Justin.
“I felt like I really got to explore more that side of Catholicism,” added Challiss, who is Lutheran but grew up attending a Catholic school. Justin explained to her the holy nature of the event.
Excited to experience the extraordinary occasion with her husband, she said, “I got to learn more about it, share his feelings and learn more about the Catholic Church. We were married in the Catholic Church, and I go to church with Justin — I already feel Catholic.”
Advice for Newlyweds
They actively looked for the best ways to work together during the project.
“We had to divide the massive work of taking these photos,” Justin explained. “I knew Challiss’ strength was close-ups, and I let her take all those photos. Likewise, she knew my strengths were with the wide-angle shots. I’m more of a big-picture guy. That is a concrete example of knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and working together toward a massive goal.”
She is of the same mind: “I definitely realized in Rome where our strengths and weaknesses lie and know what we could do better supporting each other.”
“Keep the fun in the work even if you’re tired, knowing you’re doing something special,” she added.
“When not all is sunshine and roses, and you’re tired and hungry,” Justin advised, “it’s in those times you have the opportunity … to be selfless, to be strong and to grow together as a couple.”
New Evangelization Bonus
The trio is pleased with the end result.
“As a traveler, the book is a great tool to explore the basilica. It can act as a travel guide when you’re physically at the Vatican,” Justin said. “It walks you through in a very structured manner.”
But tourists won’t be the only ones to benefit, he said: “You can be a traveler from your couch and explore the Vatican from anywhere in the world.”
“But it’s even more than that,” Father Kirby added.
An older woman emailed him about how she put a copy of the book on her coffee table, and “since then, she has had more conversations about God, Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church than she has ever had,” Father Kirby related. “Guests and family members pick up the book, glance through it, and say, ‘Wow.’ They start talking, and things get deeper [as they converse].”
And a Catholic doctor he knows placed the book in his waiting room.
“All this is in the spirit of the New Evangelization — finding new and creative ways to share the Good News,” Father Kirby emphasized. “The book can be a really creative tool for evangelization,” because of “this catechism of art and beauty” that grabs the attention and imagination.
“As a Church we’ve always done better when the imagination is healthy and alive,” he affirmed. “There is a certain romanticism to Catholicism. That helps us to understand God among us.”
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
The book is available through EWTNRC.com.