When in Rome- and in other European cities – it is possible, and quite likely, to see four nearby often within a block or two of each other) churches at the same time simply by shifting your sight just a little. Americans – being ever so practical – often wonder why so many churches were erected so close together. Some even go so far as to question the needless expenditure of monies and the extravagance of such buildings.
Several reasons might be offered to explain the abundance and the beauty of Rome’s churches:
1. The benefactors and patrons of the churches wanted them built and wanted them to beautiful. Some suggest the Church should sell her property (as if every deed was held by the Holy See itself, which is not the case) and use the money for the benefit of the poor. There are two principle difficulties with this line of reasoning, not including the Lord’s own rebuke of such an argument (see John 12:1-8).
The first is that beautiful churches do help the poor by helping to lift their minds to God precisely through the beauty of the churches. The poor often lack beauty in their lives and can find it in nearby churches.
Selling off these sacred buildings (presuming a buyer could be found) would rob future generations of this beauty.
The second is that those who contributed to the building of these churches intended them to be beautiful and gave their money for the churches to be built; to sell the churches would be a betrayal of sorts of the wishes of the donors.
2. Many of the churches were built for specific reasons. For example, some were built to house the relics of the martyrs (Rome has many such relics). Other churches were built to give thanks to God or one of the saints for assistance received. The church of Saint Mary of the Stairs, for instance, was built in thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin Mary after a plague subsided through her intercession (it is so named because of the stairs in the piazza in which it was built).
3. Saint John Chrysostom provides us with yet another reason to build so many churches and to keep them maintained. “God has set up churches like harbors along the coast,” he says, “so that you may take refuge there out of the swirl of earthly cares and find peace and quiet.”
In the United States of America, it is often said that the church’s of Italy are empty, but, having been to Italy now six times, this can only be said by one who has not visited Rome’s churches. Only once did I enter a church over these past ten days and find it completely empty. Every other church I entered always had people in it kneeling in deep prayer, or walking around the church praying the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross (there were also, of course, tourists, as well). Such scenes of the devotion of the faithful of Rome always move my heart and strengthen my own faith.
Even sitting outside for a brief pause in the piazzas throughout the Eternal City, I saw Romans stop into churches along their routes for a brief moment of prayer, as if they simply wanted to stop by and say “hi” to the Eucharistic Lord before continuing on their way. How many times does this happen in America?
It is certainly true to say that Rome’s churches are not as full as they could be or indeed as they should be. But neither are the churches in America, and we have far fewer in close proximity to each other. At the same time, I would argue – boldly, perhaps – that our level of devotion is not as strong as that of the Romans.
Take, for example, a simple stroll I took two evenings ago from the Piazza del Populo to the Basilica of Saint Peter. Along the way, I stopped in – or at least attempted to stop in – no fewer than seven churches. One was empty, two were filled with people prayer privately, two had adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament going on, and two had Mass being celebrated. All this between 5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. A brief glance into the churches with exposition showed about 25 people in each church and a similar glance into the churches with Mass showed about 45 people in each church. So deep were they in prayer that no turned around to notice my entrance into the churches (it was quite, but the doors are not always so quiet).
I like to visit churches, particularly churches I have not yet been to. Only on the rare occasion do I enter a church in the U.S. and find someone already there praying, or even find someone coming inside to pray during my own prayer (this naturally presumes that I first find the church open). Evening Masses or periods of adoration are rare in the U.S., often because people do not come.
Perhaps if we had a deeper appreciation of the One who is present to us the Tabernacles of his churches we might also have a deeper appreciation for an abundance of churches, and use them to take refuge from the many storms of life, which can catch us off guard even on a simple walk – or drive – to the store. Rome has so many harbors because we need them and because it is good to give thanks to God.