Don't let our cathedrals become museums!

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 18, 2016

Pilgrims are streaming through the Holy Door of the Vatican basilica during this Jubilee Year. But they aren’t moving very fast.

During a quick visit to Rome earlier this month, I saw the long, long line snaking its way around St. Peter’s Square: thousands of visitors waiting to pass through the security check before entering the basilica. On a sunny afternoon in May, near the height of the tourist season, I’d guess that a new arrival might wait for more than an hour before reaching the Holy Door.

When I first visited Rome, I was delighted to learn how easy it was to attend Mass at St. Peter’s basilica at almost any time during the day. One could just stroll in, wait by the sacristy until a priest came by in vestments, and follow him to a side altar. That’s no longer a realistic option. Unless you arrive very early in the morning, before the crowds gather, or have a friend who can scoot you in through a side door (as I did)—or unless you’re willing to wait for an hour—you’ll want to attend Mass somewhere else. For that matter, if your time is limited, you might look for a Holy Door elsewhere as well.

It’s wonderful that so many people want to visit St. Peter’s, and experience the grandeur of this magnificent church. But there’s a price to be paid for the Vatican’s popularity: the tourists outnumber the pilgrims, and the basilica is in danger of becoming a museum rather than a functioning church.

At the Duomo in Florence, an usher waved me away from the Holy Door, pointing me toward the long line at the main door. When I explained that I really did want to pass through the Holy Door, he stepped aside politely. Still his initial gesture had been discouraging. I cannot blame the usher; he obviously wanted to be helpful. For every pilgrim who wanted to enter through the Holy Door and pray, there were scores—perhaps hundreds—of sightseers who just wanted to admire the dome. Still, during the Jubilee Year, shouldn’t visitors be encouraged to pass through the Holy Door?

These problems are not unique to Italian churches, although they are particularly acute there. At St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York, for instance, the tourists sometimes outnumber the worshippers, and it can be a challenge to preserve the reflective atmosphere of a house of prayer.

How should we handle that challenge? I do not have any definitive answer. But I do have a few suggestions:

  • Insist on proper decorum. As often as necessary, remind visitors that they are in a house of worship. Enforce a dress code. Absolute silence will be impossible, but insist on relative quiet.
  • Discourage photography, and ban “selfie sticks.” Amateur photographers lining up shots create traffic snarls and interfere with the ability of others to appreciate the beauty of the place. Also, when they are not looking at everything through a camera, visitors will be more inclined to absorb and remember the religious art.
  • Cordon off an area for private prayer—preferably before the Blessed Sacrament. Worshippers should be able to enter this section freely, while tourists should be kept out. However, the area for prayer should not be entirely separate; visitors should see Catholics at prayer—and thereby be reminded again about the purpose of the building. It should go without saying that worshippers should never be required to pay an entry fee.
  • In fact, don’t charge anyone an admission fee. Goodwill offerings could be requested, and a gift shop connected to the vestibule might generate some revenue. But we want as many people as possible to come into our churches; we shouldn’t put any obstacles in their way. Occasionally someone enters a Catholic church as a sightseer, but then—moved by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit—leaves as a believer. Leave open that possibility.
  • Above all, insist to everyone—visitors and staff alike—that the building is a church, not a museum. Our secular society treats the great cathedrals as artifacts of a bygone civilization; if we Catholics slip into the same way of thinking, we’re in deep trouble.

Tourists can definitely cause inconveniences for practicing Catholics at our most beautiful churches. But these are prices that we should willingly pay, for two reasons:

First, everyone should have access to great art and architecture. The Church is custodian to an invaluable patrimony, which should be shared generously with the world.

Second—and to my mind, for more important—the treasures that are found in so many Catholic churches should prompt reflective visitors to ask themselves some leading questions. Why has the Catholic Church—far more than governments, far more than any other institutions—preserved so much valuable art? Why has the Catholic faith inspired so much breathtaking work? Unsuspecting tourists, complacent in their secular outlook, might discover that it’s no coincidence that the “path of beauty” leads them into a church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: vboast4348 - May. 26, 2016 8:46 AM ET USA

    On several trips to Italy I was impressed to find a chapel in most Cathedrals and large Basilicas where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and one could pray quietly; with some investigation, I could find Mass in St Peter's (5pm daily, The Altar of the Chair) , and the best time to visit was at 7am when priests come to say their private Masses and have always welcomed us to attend. Same in Assisi. Skip breakfast!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 19, 2016 12:25 PM ET USA

    Have to commend the Diocese of Little Rock for making pilgrimages available to all the faithful. I was able to make mine, husband in wheelchair, beautifully and with amazingly little problem. Priests were available for confessions, and the discerning men from the House of Studies were extremely helpful. Who needs Europe? It's a tough hike to find the Master in His House, usually with little company.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 19, 2016 10:02 AM ET USA

    Nearly 40 years ago I visited several cathedrals in Europe. The experience got old in a hurry. They were little more than large auditoriums without pews, a sense of reverence, or a hint of the majesty of God. They seemed to be hollow shells, secular relics of some sort of former grandeur. On closer inspection, I did find an occasional Mass being said at side altar, but the worshippers were few in number and exceedingly wizened. It was a depressing scene, even for a nominal Catholic.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 18, 2016 6:15 PM ET USA

    important Anglican churches (Westminster Abbey; St. Paul's, Salisbury, Bath Cathedrals) in England have (or had the last time I was there)a clergyman or woman wandering about all the time. On the hour, he or she will take the pulpit and remind the visitors that this is a church, not a museum, and ask everybody to pause for one minute to pray, or at least to be silent. People stop in their tracks, respectfully.