“What a beautiful church!” “Look at the arches!” “What saint is that?” “What does that inscription say?”
I have been spoiled with beautiful churches. From my home parish, to the Basilica at Notre Dame, to the chapel at our House of Studies in DC, and even this summer at St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City, I have enjoyed breath-taking churches for most of my life.
As a consequence, I have been around church tours: receiving them, giving them, and sometimes accidetally interrupting them. These church tours serve an important purpose, giving voice to what the architecture and artwork have to say about God and our worship of Him. All the same, I find a recurring irony in these tours.
Imagine taking a tour of the White House. There is that surreal feeling of walking through the corridors of such an important building, where so much has happened. And then, at the climax of the tour, you enter the Oval Office. There, the tour guide comments on the history of the room and its current appearance. Visitors ooh and ah, snapping photos and selfies.
However, sitting there in the Oval Office, behind the desk, is the President. For some strange reason, the tour guide does not mention him, and following suit, most visitors hardly even notice him. Perhaps a few devoutly patriotic visitors offer a polite “good afternoon, Mr. President.” But besides such niceties, there is no fuss about the President. People are more enthralled by the room than the man.
A similar scenario plays out in many Catholic churches. Most tours focus on architecture and artwork. “Look at these gothic arches.” “What beautiful stained glass!” All the while, the King of the Universe, the unmatched Lover of every heart is present—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—awaiting each guest in the Eucharist. Sure, the pious visitors will genuflect or bow, but even these gestures are often perfunctory.
Art has an inherent value, worthy of receiving the tour’s appreciation. And it is a blessing to have a church worthy of such a tour. Even more, the beauty of the church helps to manifest the beauty of the Eucharist. Good artwork tells the story of God’s love for us, and good architecture calls forth the reverence due to the Eucharist.
Yet the irony remains. For a brief period of time, we get more excited about the wrapping paper than the gift.
Our response can be quite simple: the intimate gaze through the tabernacle walls and the tender prayer: “You alone are my God; my soul thirsts for you, Jesus.”
Image: Marcus Obal, St. Peter’s Basilica