Small churches. Large cathedrals. Grand basilicas. I visited dozens of houses of worship in nine countries during ten weeks of research this fall. They shared many elements: ornate architecture; fabulous art; photographs of Pope Francis. But the thing that struck me most was that someone was always praying inside.
God is open for business.
I cede that St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is overwhelming, and that St. Vitus’ Gothic and Romanesque exuberance is impressive in Prague. But I strongly prefer the small churches, like the Church of San Maurizio in Venice, that I stumble upon on my way to someplace else.
One bridge, two superb pastry shops (why, oh why is gluttony a sin?), and three squares from my hotel, the Church of San Maurizio anchors one corner of a campo (square) of the same name. A church has stood there since the 1500s. It’s easy to bustle past the columned-and-pedimented door in a city drowning in jaw-dropping facades.
San Maurizio is a neighborhood church, patiently waiting as children play ball, dogs walk their owners, and restaurants suitable for tourists or locals refuse to serve dinner until 7:00 p.m.. There’s even a transgender sex shop across the campo, with mannequins dressed in drag. (Could I make this up? No.)
I’ve read all about the death of the church. I’ve seen abandoned churches, churches converted to other uses, and churches overwhelmed by gigantic mosques in parts of the world where Islam is in-your-face aggressive. (I’m thinking particularly about the Mosque of Omar in Bethlehem, looming across from the Church of the Nativity.)
But my most recent trip as far east as Istanbul revealed a consistent rhythm of worship, one that continues as individuals pray in places like San Maurizio. These Christians are part of a thread that stretches back two thousand years—to a manger in Bethlehem.
Even the Mosque of Omar can’t overshadow the manger that still illuminates the world.