This week, I am in Rome visiting two Indianapolis seminarians  who are studying at the Pontifical North American College. As Archdiocesan Vocations Director, I visit all of our seminarians regularly as part of their formation and evaluation program. While in Rome, I often have the opportunity to also spend time in the city. I hope to post a brief series of reflections on this blog from  my time this week in the Eternal City.

When I arrived in Rome on Tuesday morning, after settling into my room at the College, I had some free time before pranzo (lunch), so I headed to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, less than a ten minute walk from where I am staying. I have had the opportunity to be in Rome several times through the years, and I know St. Peter’s well; but it is alway a good place to begin my time in the city to pray at the tombs of so many apostles, popes, and other Saints. One of the challenges, though, is that for most of the day, St. Peter’s is more of a museum than a church. Tour groups come in the marvel at the grand architecture, view Michelangelo’s Pieta, and learn about the Popes from Peter to today. Some of these  groups are pilgrims who are also there to pray, but even the pilgrim groups often become tourists following a guide through the basilica who is explaining what to look at, who made it, who is buried where, and why all of this is important.

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Nativity Scene in front of St. Peter's Basilica

This week, there aren’t many people in Rome, so the basilica wasn’t too crowded. But as I walked around, I found myself paying as much attention to the people as to the church, partly because the church has become so familiar to me. Most people are busily taking pictures, even though the vastness of the space means that most pictures won’t turn out well (I know from personal experience). A lot of the people look so awed and overwhelmed at the huge scale of the structure and the art that they can’t quite take it all in. Some people stop to pray, especially at the tombs of the newly canonized Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. But not many people appear to be praying, and those who are, not for long. A big part of the way people act in St. Peter’s is because of the tourist crowd and the remarkable art and architecture. But it did make me think – do people know what to do when  they visit a church?

Now many of the people who visit St. Peter’s aren’t Catholic. But a lot are, and even from the pilgrim groups I have led in Rome, outside of Mass, we’re not much different than other tourists. So let’s broaden the question, so it’s not just about this particular basilica in Rome. Do Catholics – or Christians in general – know what to do when they visit a church? If we’re there for Mass, we have at least a general idea. But what about visiting a church on your own, not for Mass, whether it is stopping by your home parish on the way to or from  work, or visiting a historic or artistically significant church while on vacation or pilgrimage? We might kneel and say a quick prayer. We’ll probably look around, deciding whether we like how the church looks or not, thinking about what we would do differently, comparing it to churches we know. Especially if we’re on vacation or a pilgrimage, we’ll probably take pictures. Lots of pictures we might never look at again; our image-saturated society means that we experience the world through a lens or scfeen. But do we really know how to visit a church as a person of faith? What exactly does that even mean?

Churches are meant to be houses of prayer, and so every time we visit a church as people of faith, it would make sense that there is some kind of prayer. But we’re not particularly good – at least us Catholics – of spontaneous, non-liturgical prayer. And most churches, when we visit them outside of Mass, are fairly quiet – and we don’t really know what to do with silence. So we take pictures. We look around. We walk around. And then we leave, without having had a spiritual experience in a church. It’s just a building. And we’ve missed something.

As I’m writing this reflection, I can see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica illuminated at night, a place that is as much museum as church even for pilgrims. But during my visit this week, I knelt in front of the tomb of St. John Paul II and prayed for a long time. I found silence, even with countless tour groups taking pictures and listening to guides talk about Bernini and Michelangelo. I just finished reading a biography of St. Thomas Becket, whose shrine at Canterbury is one of the most famous pilgrimage centers in the world. In the Middle Ages, people came from all over Europe to pray at Becket’s shrine, seeking healing for themselves or others or asking the Saint to pray for them. They knew what to do when they got there. I think the same is true today at places like Lourdes. But I’m not sure most Americans – in our parishes – know how to visit a church outside of Mass. I think that’s something we can work on. Any ideas?

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