Echoes. The most beautiful church in the world. Published on 05/25/2022






The most beautiful church in the world


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During my years as a seminarian in Rome, I had the incredible privilege of serving as a guide at St. Peter’s and several other great basilicas, introducing tens of thousands of pilgrims to the faith and truths under underlying beauty.







Father Roger J.
Landry

Pope Benedict XVI has often said that the most effective apology for Christianity is the life of the saints and the art that the Church has nurtured within her. For this reason, the Church must always take both seriously: training disciples to be saints and creating a culture in which beauty is cultivated and appreciated.

When and where the Church has flourished, the two have normally come together, as the masterpieces of human life as well as music, art and architecture that have come to monasteries or Catholic countries at their zealous peak. When the Church has grown lukewarm or cold, mediocrity can quickly set in with regard to expectations for both human virtue and artistic expression. Beauty in life and art inspire; blandness or ugliness depresses and deflates.

One of the most important means, therefore, of calling people to transcendence, to lift up their hearts to the Lord, to taste and see the possibility of eternal human excellence, is beauty in art. sacred.

I remember when this idea first captured me.

I was immersed in the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library, the largest university library in the world and the third largest in the United States, after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Several underground floors doing research for an article, I accidentally – or, more precisely, providentially – found a section with stories and guides to the great cathedrals and churches of the world.

Partly out of undergraduate procrastination, but mostly out of fascination, I spent several hours browsing through photos of major shrines in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. It soon became a personal priority to visit several of these sacred buildings to which I was introduced that afternoon, beginning an adventure that has not stopped.

One of my most prized possessions is a collection of guidebooks from around the world to the great churches I have visited, which allows me to make frequent virtual pilgrimages to these sites and to be repeatedly inspired by the magnificent faith that built and preserved them.

As a priest, I have tried to try to transmit to others this same passion for sacred beauty, particularly present in large Churches, because I believe that beauty is more accessible to all and more easily transformative than listening polyphonic masterpieces or visiting museums of religious art.

During my years as a seminarian in Rome, I had the incredible privilege of serving as a guide at St. Peter’s and several other great basilicas, introducing tens of thousands of pilgrims to the faith and truths under underlying beauty.

After ordination, I led dozens of pilgrimages to major churches around the world — to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, southern Germany, Malta, Prague, in Mexico, Quebec and beyond.

As a pastor in Massachusetts, in addition to welcoming many visitors to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, the finest church in New England where I pastored for seven years, I have loved taking people on a pilgrimage to the extraordinary of churches all over New England: Holy Cross Cathedral and the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston; St. Anne to Fall River; St. John’s to Clinton; SS. Peter and Paul in Providence and Lewiston, Maine; Immaculate Conception and St. Anne in Waterbury, Connecticut; St. John’s Basilica in Stamford; and others.

I have also guided many walking tours, during my years of service to the Church at the United Nations, of the finest churches in Manhattan and those in other boroughs. I carried various cargoes across the Hudson to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ, what I call “the second most beautiful church in the country”, predictably and intentionally prompting my co-travelers to ask what’s at the top of the list. This, to me, is clearly the “new” St. Louis Cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri, a treasure few in the northeast have ever had the privilege of seeing.

It was also great to accompany various groups in the most beautiful church in the world dedicated to Our Lady, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC, as well as in some of the other extraordinary churches in the country, such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Paul in St. Paul and St. Agnes in Minneapolis, the Cathedral Basilica of St. John in Savannah, and the plethora of extraordinary churches made great by the faith, hard work, and generosity of Catholic immigrants in Chicago, Philadelphia , New Orleans and these cities.

Recently, however, I had the joy of accompanying a group of pilgrims to the most beautiful church in the world.

I was serving as chaplain for a pilgrimage to Malta and Sicily for the Napa Institute and during our 10 days together I had visited some amazing churches, like St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. I told my group members that these churches were like an appetizer to the incredible feast for our eyes and souls that would come later, when we visited the Cathedral of Monreale, just outside Palermo.

A few of the pilgrims joked that nothing could live up to the astronomical hyperbole I was employing, but, after visiting it themselves on May 10, they thought my words had even been insufficient.

Likewise, my words here, or even the virtual tour of the cathedral on the internet, will not do it justice; Like the difference between watching a movie on an old TV and seeing it in an IMAX theater, to grasp what sets Monreale apart, to properly appreciate it, you have to stand inside, enveloped by its beauty.

Built primarily by Norman King William II in the late 12th century, it has 68,243 square feet of gold mosaics, with two and a half tons (4,850 pounds) of gold used. This in itself communicates a powerful impression of the splendor of God, but it is what the mosaics depict that is more overwhelming.

In the apse there is an extraordinary image of Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty Lord) blessing us, with an open book preaching to us the message: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). Around the nave there are 42 huge mosaic scenes from the Book of Genesis, detailing the days of Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, reminding us of where we came from and we preparing for the “even more wonderful” gift of redemption.

There are also 54 scenes from the life and miracles of Christ, 44 images of saints and angels, 10 images of the prophets, two sets of five images from the lives of saints. Peter and Paul, an image of Our Lady (to whom the cathedral is dedicated) holding the infant Jesus and two mosaics of the coronation of William II by Christ and another of William II presenting the cathedral to Our Lady.

The general impression left is of being surrounded by the glory of creation and redemption, of the holiness of God and the saints, and reminded of our place in this greatest and most important drama of all.

I could also describe the ornamental floors, the rich decorative capitals, the incredible wooden vault, the Renaissance side chapels, the exterior walls displaying the fusion of the best of Norman, Byzantine and Arabic styles on the exterior, the state of the sound art (since it is still heavily used for worship), the tomb of St. Louis IX, and much more in the 334-by-131-foot temple dedicated to and reflecting the glory of God. But you really have to see it to believe it.

It has been called “the most beautiful Credo in the world”.

As you see this “visio divina” – the visual representation of Holy Scripture from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation in the new heaven and the new earth – you will be brought to stronger faith.

Sacred art like it remains, even centuries later, one of the most powerful and effective apologetics of the faith.

– Father Landry is a priest from the Diocese of Fall River who is national chaplain for Aid to the Church in Need USA, papal missionary of mercy and missionary of the Eucharist for the American bishops.

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