I am going to take a pause in my effusive ramblings about how much we love the Catholic church to share some of what has kept me/us from its door until lately.
I'll start with this picture for you. Our family did a house exchange to France last summer - which I highly recommend. Of course, we had to take in the sites and, having taken a number of art history classes in university, we hit some memorable buildings - many of them beautiful cathedrals. We were in Marseille and Paris - and took in the beautiful Notre Dames (if you can pluralize french in such a way!) in both cities, and a number of beautiful abbeys and cathedrals that are less known in the surrounding areas.
What struck me as sad was that every cathedral we were in was unlocked but empty. Not empty of visitors: people swarmed over these places like ants. It was just that with the world coming through the front door, there was no presence of the church (its people) inside the buildings. In particular, after one very long day of traipsing through the city with small children in tow, we went down to the old port in Marseille and entered the stunning Marseille Cathedral - or Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure that watches over the shipping path of that part of the city. Part of me longed for a friendly face. Someone just to say hello, and pat the children on the head like so many French do.
Inside was a tomb. Silent and empty. It struck me as an empty place. I had no idea whether or not services were still performed there, or if the church was in a sad state of decline. It felt more like the latter as I wandered around looking at the beautiful sculptures and the architecture of the place.
When we were at Notre Dame de la Guarde in Marseilles, this one stands on the hill and overlooks the city and the Mediterranean, again, inside the church itself there was no "greeter" for lack of a better word. There was a bustling store - off to the side of the church. A store? Selling "stuff" for the masses. It was a bit repugnant truthfully. I like to buy my stuff as much as the next person - and maybe wouldn't have even noticed it if there had just been a body there to say hello to. A warm smile to convey the message that this building holds more than just memories. In fairness, here we found a very friendly poster inviting people to the Catholic church, but it wasn't clear what you were invited to - other than a website that I don't think people were exactly writing down... It was slightly heartening that someone was trying to do something to engage the hundreds of people that came through the door, but it was maybe just a small part of what could make a huge impact.
Notre Dame in Paris was by far the worst. Obviously, as a work of art - it is stunning. As a work of God's church, it seemed desecrated to me. You finish your line up only to find out how to pay to get on top of the building. Okay fine, I could put up with that. Then you walk past banks of machines that will turn a Euro coin into some sort of medal as a keepsake. They are the size of vending machines and just as tacky. God needs vending machines to keep His church alive?
No. Far from it. God needs His people to testify to others about the life they have found inside those walls. Again, a friendly face. If I hadn't discovered almost by chance all of the life in the Catholic church, I would still - based on my impressions of those places - believe that the Catholic church was in decline. That it didn't have enough priests to even say hello to the world on its doorstep. It felt like if there was a priest or a sister or a deacon around somewhere, they were likely in hiding, watching the clock until at last they could lock up God's treasure house to keep it safe from those wandering around outside.