Sicilian Cathedral of Monreale| National Catholic Register
Pope Benedict XVI has often said that the most effective apologetics of Christianity are the lives 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 stories underground while researching for an article, I accidentally – or, more accurately, 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 that I was introduced to 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, Mexico, Quebec and beyond.
As a parish priest 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 loved taking people on pilgrimages to amazing churches all over New England: Holy Cross Cathedral and Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, St. Anne’s in Fall River, St. John’s in Clinton, Massachusetts, Sts. . Peter and Paul in Providence and Lewiston, Maine, Immaculate Conception and St. Anne in Waterbury, Connecticut, St. John’s Basilica in Stamford, Connecticut, 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’ve hauled various cargoes across the Hudson to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey, what I call “the second most beautiful church in the country,” predictably prompting and intentional my co-travelers to ask what is at the top of the list. To me, this is clearly the “new” St. Louis Cathedral in St. Louis, a treasure that 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 around the country, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral Basilica in St. Paul and St. Agnes in Minneapolis, St. John’s Cathedral Basilica in Savannah, Georgia, and the plethora of extraordinary churches made great by the faith, hard work, and generosity of immigrants Catholics 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) who blesses us, with an open book that preaches the message to us: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Around the nave, 42 huge mosaic scenes from the Book of Genesis detail the days of Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, reminding us of where we came from and preparing us 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”.
See this video divina — the visual representation of the Holy Scriptures from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation in the new heavens 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.