Editorial: Caveat Emptor

Last summer I went on a pilgrimage to Italy with my family and sat next to a pleasant young man on the airplane. He related to me his first trip to Italy, which was a low-budget affair, in which they spent more time in churches than in museums. The tour operators evidently knew what many Catholics understand, that the art and architecture of the churches of Europe can be seen for free. On the other hand, when I visited St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in London in 1987 I was shocked at the lines, the request for donations and the gift shop in the back of the nave. It is a magnificent work of architecture but the powers that be had turned it into a sort of a museum. Contrast this with its architectural equivalent in Rome, which is a great repository of art and architecture visited by millions of people, and yet also features a well-used chapel of Eucharistic adoration along with masses and confessions at the side altars and in the nave. All for the right price.

Everywhere I went in Italy last summer, save the eternal city, churches were asking an admission fee. The explanation was given that it costs a lot to maintain these buildings and keep them open and so it should be the responsibility of everyone who uses them to help pay for their upkeep. If this seems like a reasonable request, it is also a major contradiction with the purpose of a church. In Florence, charging for admissions started with the baptistery and the museum of the duomo—a nuisance that did not prevent visits or prayer in the church proper. Then it spread to the Brancacci chapel by Massacio, the New Sacristy by Michelangelo and the burial chapel of the Medicis at the parish church of San Lorenzo. More recently San Lorenzo itself and the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella have begun charging entrance fees. And while these churches only allow paying customers during the week, at the Franciscan church of Santa Croce an equally problematic attitude is exhibited: people are not allowed to enter on Sunday morning unless they are going to mass. These are churches which every tour group, pilgrimage group, art and architecture class should stop off to see, to draw, to visit and to pray in. Now many will not make the visit, given time and money. Even worse, and more detrimental to the sacred character of the buildings, they will no longer be places for the faithful of the city. Without the love, care and affection of the nonnas, the youth on their way to class, the workers on a break, and other faithful, these buildings will become simply museums. Florence, they say, is a city of Museums and now even more so.

Venice also is so full of art and architecture and so lacking in permanent residents that tourists seem to take over. In Venice the Chorus foundation was formed by the Archdiocese in order to restore some of their magnificent churches and their sacred art. A worthwhile task, but it also means that fourteen of the major churches including the Frari and the Redentore are entrance by admission only. There are several benefits of this, of course: the buildings stay clean, unwanted beggars and graduate students are kept out, and all art lovers are protected from the distractions of people kneeling, praying, and lighting candles. Pay-per-view religion is a very contemporary idea and offers a new way to charge for indulgences. Now, it is also true that most of these churches are open for “free” during one daily mass, and paid staff ensure that visitors participate in the liturgy and are prevented from looking at artwork or visiting side chapels. That should be done during normal business hours. We can be sure that Veronese, Bellini, Palladio and Longhena would be surprised to know that Third Millennium Man believes he can separate faith and art. Other churches such as Santa Maria dei Miracoli, having lost their parishioners or religious congregations, have dispensed with the daily or weekly mass altogether and have become galleries of sacred art, with the occasional Vivaldi concert or upper-class wedding.

What a lost opportunity. Here are buildings constructed by the faithful and the finest artists and architects throughout the centuries, more beautiful than ever but not really serving their highest purpose: the praise of God and the bestowal of grace on men. Catholic art, along with the rich tradition of sacred music, continues to speak to people of differing cultural and religious backgrounds. Is this not an opportunity to be hospitable, to welcome the saint, the sinner and the prodigal? Is not the cost of keeping our churches open, offering the liturgy and reserving the Eucharist a price the Church can afford, no matter the monetary price?

These developments bode poorly for the Church in Italy, and for Catholics everywhere. They signal the acceptance of the disconnection between faith and art for modern man, which during the past two centuries has been advocated by the avant-garde. The separation of worship and devotion from beauty and art is schizophrenic for a Church that believes in the necessity of sacrament. I am sure that many tourists will get used to paying for church, while the faithful on pilgrimage or tour should be scandalized. “But we only want to go in to pray at the tomb of Saint (Francis, Monica, Ignatius, Therese, etc.) or see the miraculous image.” “I am sorry but you will have to either pay the admission price or come back on Sunday.” It is time to find creative ways to allow our churches to remain open for all, to be living houses of the Church, all the while bearing witness to our final home in the heavens.

Notre Dame, Indiana

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.