by Damien Peterson. Check out Damien’s YouTube channel here. He covers Catholic news and events.
Why I decided to go back I don’t know. I guess I just had to see it again despite the torture it was on myself. There is something to be said about familiar pain in how it both stings and soothes at the same time; which was felt more depended on the day. What was to be felt more this day was soon to be discovered.
It was always the same thing. The same routine. Being unable to reconcile my old life with the realities of today made me long for a recalling of the old. No matter how much distance I seemed to place between me and the past, I always found myself walking up these same concrete stairs.
There was a bit of a larger crowd today, maybe ten people, though the make-up of them was the usual. There were always the elderly people who had a fondness for the past. After all, if one grows old enough, so many people die that all one is left with is nostalgia. My cynicism HAS improved, actually. The elderly made up most of the gathering. But there were the younger ones too. Mostly early to mid-twenties. This crowd had the widest variance in attitude from day to day. One day, this group may consist of legitimately interested youth, who sought to find out more about their history and where they came from. Their eagerness to know more was always encouraging. However, on other occasions, there would be the youth who came only to scoff and poke fun at the foolishness of their forebears. This group always irritated me. Lastly, were the in-betweens, the middle-agers who typically had one foot in with the elderly and their nostalgia, and the other with the troublesome group of youth who cared only to mock.
All of us were gathered there on the steps, as the tour guide, Sam, opened the large wooden door, and we all entered.
“Alright folks, my name is Sam and I’ll be your guide today. A few quick rules, and they are the obvious ones, but I still have to state them. 1) Please, no touching anything and 2) Please do not go into any areas which are roped off. Now that that’s out of the way…”
“Let’s check out some incredible history, and thank you for stopping by and visiting us today,” I mouthed under my breath. I could recite his entire speech from the entrance to the exit in my sleep. I did get tired of hearing the same thing over and over again, but I didn’t come here for Sam.
As we all walked inside our footsteps made a loud echo from the marble floor to the high ceiling. The building we were in was massive. It was intended to be such. Scattered throughout its walls were many images and sculptures. These things meant nothing to the people there today. They huddled around Sam as he explained to them what all this strange imagery and symbolism meant. It was our first stop, and Sam spoke.
“If you will all take a look at the wall here on your right you will see a sculpted image with a Roman numeral one atop it,” said Sam.
The re-rolling of the video in my head began again as I heard his following words go on to explain what this first image meant. I was already getting angry. Not, mind you, from his explanation, but rather from the response it invariably received from the tourists. Sam continued.
“We have a man who is bound, and is being condemned. This man they called Jesus Christ. The Roman Numeral one stood for the First Station of the Cross. There is a total of 14 stations, and you can see them wrap all around the church,” Sam told them.
Yes, we were in a church.
“Why did they call them the Stations of the Cross?” asked a young girl from among the crowd. Her name tag read “Shelly.”
“That’s an excellent question Shelly,” Sam replied. “You see, Jesus, it was believed, was killed by being hung on a cross. That is what the Christians used to believe.”
I shook my head. Not at Shelly. It broke my heart to hear her ask her question. But I wasn’t saddened by her asking it. I was saddened rather by the thousands of other Shellys I had met since I began my torturous return to this place several years ago. The tour went on.
“This way,” said Sam, “we see the altar. This is where the priest would offer a sacrifice to their god. The Catholics believed that the bread and wine they used in this sacrifice was actually the body and blood of Christ.”
The tourists all laughed, excepting a few of the elderly. Always the same. Every time. I never, to this day, have figured out a way to overcome the tremendous sadness I felt each and every instance that this happened. Stuff it down. Move on.
One of the tourists pointed over to a golden item which sat atop the altar. He asked, “What’s that thing?”
“That sir, is called a monstrance. It was used to house a ‘Eucharist’, which is what the Catholics called it, in order to venerate it, as they, like I said, believed it to be the actual body of Jesus,” answered Sam.
“What does Eucharist mean?” asked a middle-aged woman to her friend quietly behind me. She asked it rhetorically, of course. She knew her friend hadn’t a clue.
I turned around and answered her question. I couldn’t help it. “It means thanksgiving in Greek,” I told her in the same whispered voice.
The woman, whose name tag read “Sarah,” looked at me very surprised. She said, “Thank you. How did you know that?”
“I am one of those troubled souls who happens to like old books,” was my rather cowardly reply.
As we all walked up the aisle, facing west to the altar, and, to the Tabernacle, I watched the people’s faces. They were so awe-struck by the imagery of the columns and statuary lifting their gaze upward, as well as the massive organ on the balcony, where the choir used to sit. You could almost hear their heavenly chant now echoing throughout the church. There were statues of angels and saints all arraying the insides of the pillars, close to the top, as there were holes hollowed out of them just for that purpose.
“I have to be honest,” said Shelly. “This is pretty beautiful.”
“I agree,” said Tom, her boyfriend, whose eyes were focused upwards as well.
I felt the same. For this, and for the sight of the altar, is why I kept on coming to this place.
“What happened to the Catholic Church?” asked Sarah.
“Very good question,” said Sam. “Well, you see, the Catholic Church was very ancient. It came into existence about 2200 years ago. And, for a long time, it ruled the roost, if you will. At its height it claimed over a billion members.”
“Oh wow,” said Sarah.
“Yes. So quite a following,” said Sam. “But, in the mid-twentieth century it faced a fork in the road. Now this isn’t just my opinion, but it seems to be the opinion of most scholars today, that at this time, the Catholic Church was faced with the modern world.”
There. Right there. Each and every time I heard that word “modern” I felt sick. This time was no different. Sam went on.
“Well,” Sam said with a big sigh, as he knew this was quite the topic to be breached. His job however was to keep it simple, and that he did. “The Church was faced with two options, either to adopt its ways to fit the modern world, or, demand the modern world adopt its ways to it. Now, even had the latter been tried, could they have saved themselves? Who knows? But the moral of the story is they didn’t even try. And, they instead opted to embrace the modern world and change THEIR ways. Since this is called the Museum of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, you know exactly how well that worked out.”
“So, it all just happened that easily?” asked Tom.
Sam shrugged his shoulders, “No story about the downfall of a great and ancient institution such as the Catholic Church is ever that simple. But, for the sake of brevity, we have kept it so. Now I could get into how there were some really awful popes at the end, but that would leave us here well past closing time.”
It was then that I felt a nudge from behind me. It was Sarah. She eagerly asked another question, “Do you know what a pope is?”
I nodded and answered, “The pope is the head of the entire Catholic Church.”
She smiled and said, “Thank you,” in a very soft voice.
Sam finished his response to Tom by saying, “I wouldn’t necessarily put the number of Catholics today at zero, either. I mean, of course there are none known to us in this country because of the Anti-Superstition Laws, but some say that there is a tiny remnant still existing. There are others who claim there is still a pope, but that one is harder to verify because there have been no shortage of people claiming to be such. But this all really goes well beyond my pay grade.”
“It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?” asked Sarah aloud for the whole group to hear her.
Sam again shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I try not to get too sentimental about history. Everything eventually comes to an end. And, it seems, most things come to an end as a result of not knowing enough about history. The Church, too, made that same fatal mistake all other great civilizations and institutions which went before it have made: it walked away from its traditions, and once it did that, it ceased to be what it had always been, which was Catholic. And, once the Church stopped being Catholic, all that remained were empty walls and unlit candles.”
These words weren’t from the script. They were off the cuff. And they hit me hard. I couldn’t compose myself anymore and had no choice but to walk out in a rush, noticeably shaken.
Only a few in the group had noticed the man they were standing next to was upset when he left, including Sam. Sarah was one of them. She saw him the closest and noticed something the others didn’t: the tears in his eyes. But why? She thought about it for a moment and came up with what she felt was most certainly the explanation. Looking at the tour guide, their eyes met, and she said, “That man seemed to know a lot about the Catholic Church. I wonder if he is one of the ‘remnant’ you just spoke about?” Though she asked this question, she didn’t expect a response, let alone the one that she received.
“I don’t know if he is part of the ‘remnant’ or not ma’am,” answered Sam. “Not sure who determines such things. But what I do know, is that that man who just ran out, used to be a priest. And, years ago, this used to be his church.”