LAS VEGAS — Pope Gregory I first identified the Seven Deadly Sins -- and suitable punishments for their commission -- around AD 600, 1,400 years before Las Vegas would earn the moniker Sin City. But the nickname is certainly fitting. Today, no one who practices gluttony amid the mountains of food at the famous buffets is forced to eat rats or toads. Nor is someone indulging in lust smothered in fire and brimstone.
Yes, the Roman Catholic Church still encourages people to confess their sins, but without the threat of being dismembered alive. And for those who've committed their transgressions in the towering resorts along the Las Vegas Strip, a confessor is never very far away. All the sinner must do is walk away from those clanging slot machines and smiling cocktail waitresses and straight out the casino's front door.
Once on the sidewalk, they must ignore the boxes full of adult entertainment brochures -- such as the one in which a seductive blond promises, "I can be in your room in 20 minutes" -- and instead head straight for a nearby church, where a priest is waiting.
"Located across from the Luxor hotel & next to the Tropicana. Click here for map," reads the website of the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, one of two Catholic churches on or near the Strip.
It was built in 1991 as the resorts expanded south along Las Vegas Boulevard and is the younger sister of one of Sin City's most anomalous attractions: Guardian Angel Cathedral.
Located just north of Encore -- Steve Wynn's newest creation -- Guardian Angel Cathedral has been serving the spiritual needs of tourists since 1977. The diocese says about 4 in 10 residents are Roman Catholics, so Guardian Angel's original mission was as an outreach to casino workers.
"You wouldn't expect to see a chapel here," says Malachy McCluskey, a first-time visitor from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. "It's like in a hollow between all the tall buildings."
McCluskey was visiting earlier this month along with his wife, Maura, and adult daughter, Geraldine.
"My sister and I have been here several times before on holiday," Geraldine says. "Daddy has always wanted to see Vegas. He watches 'CSI' on TV at home, and wanted to come and see Vegas for himself, so we brought them this year."
Geraldine adds that because her parents attend Mass every day at home, they didn't want to break with tradition just because they were on vacation. So they made the half-mile walk from Treasure Island hotel to the cathedral.
"The chapel amazed me. It's beautiful," Maura McCluskey says.
Though the McCluskeys are certainly among the faithful, many of those who find their way to the cathedral are clearly in need of absolution. Confessions are heard before Mass every day except Sunday. And according to the rector, Father Lawrence Lentz, people often share with him their indulgence in the various sins for which Vegas is known including the overconsumption of alcohol and prostitution.
"It's not uncommon for somebody to come to confession and indicate that it's been maybe six months or a year" since their last confession, Lentz says. "I'll ask, 'Why so long?' And they'll say, 'Well, Father, that's the last time we were here.' I guess it offers a kind of anonymity for them that they don't find at home."
When the collection is counted after Mass, the priest says it's not unusual to find chips and cash-out slips from the casinos in the baskets. Sometimes, a worshiper will stuff several $100 bills into an envelope.
"You can sort of assume that's part of their winnings," Lentz says. The priests no longer encourage people to toss their chips into the basket.
"In recent years, the casinos have encouraged us not to do that and they've made it more difficult for us to cash those in," he says.
Given its location, the cathedral -- and the adjoining diocesan offices -- sit on a valuable parcel of land, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by Wynn, the wealthy hotelier.
When Wynn was building Encore, the new resort that is set to open Monday, Wynn approached church leaders offering to buy the land and build a new cathedral and office building elsewhere. He wanted to raze the structures and replace them with a parking garage.
"The monsignor said it would be a big hassle," Wynn says. And when he learned that his request would have to be sent to Rome -- for the pope's consideration -- he decided to build the garage on property he already owned.
Lentz says he doubts the deal would have been approved, given that the church sits on consecrated land. He adds that Guardian Angel's location "gives us a wonderful opportunity to be that countercultural entity within the community."
"I think that's one of the reasons that it's so important to the bishop that we maintain ourselves here amidst everything else on the Strip -- to be that sign, to be that haven, that oasis -- amid all of this cacophony."
The priest adds that the location also makes his job easier than at his previous churches.
"I don't have to go very far for customers," Lentz says.