He is Here

It may have been partly the bright light, I admit, after all those crepuscular chapels. As soon as I opened the door, before I saw the altar, or the tabernacle, or the crucifix, when all I could see were pews, I felt at home. “Jesus is here,” I thought with complete certainty.

My family and I had been received into the Church at the Easter Vigil three months before. I was in Oxford for a conference on Newman. A theologian friend, John Saward, also a convert, had given me a tour of the city, particularly the old college chapels. Some memorialized our former Anglican heroes. Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street memorialized our hero Newman when he was an Anglican.

Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street at the University of Oxford. Photo: wikipedia.com/Diliff
Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street at the University of Oxford. Photo: wikipedia.com/Diliff

And the reverse as well. It included the spot where the Reformation father Thomas Cranmer had been tried and convicted for tearing England away from the Church.

It had been a lovely day, full of the history and architecture I had loved as an Anglican, and was missing as a new American Catholic. (Our new parish was particularly inane and ugly. You wonder what serious architect could have thought it worth building.) All that history, beauty, all those lovely old chapels and churches. Then John suggested we end the day praying in the chapel of one the Catholic halls.

I don’t remember which chapel we visited, but a room of Anglican beauty it was not. It was fairly spare, with few shrines or candles or statues, and Ikea-style pews. Nothing to make your heart soar. But Jesus was there.

A Fussy Anglican

I had been a fussy Anglican. The aesthetic side of religion mattered much to me. I said then that beauty conveyed the eternal. Now I suspect I didn’t believe in the eternal as much as I thought. After we entered the Church, that feeling gradually left me. Ugly buildings and sloppy celebrations and sing-songy music that would have left me grumbling all Sunday afternoon didn’t bother me.

It was what my new brothers and sisters found meaningful, I thought. I had entered their Church and should not demand my own way. More than that: after years of deep commitment in what had been (somewhat unknowingly) a subjective form of Christianity, I was struck, and drawn, and compelled by Catholicism’s objectivity. It came as a liberation from a piety that depended either on what a Catholic would call scruples or a dangerous over-confidence in one’s closeness to God.

Jesus sits there in the tabernacle. He is there, whether or not I believe it, or feel it, or want it. He is there even if the church is ugly, the mass badly celebrated, the music insufferable. I loved the fact that Jesus is, as I liked to say, always just around the corner. My Anglican friends would roll their eyes, and some of my Catholic friends shake their heads, but with Jesus there, I could put up with pretty much anything.

I still feel that way. The Church who so calmly, serenely, objectively declares the truth, who brings Jesus to us body and blood, soul and divinity, transformed my mind and life. Give me the worst suburban mass over the most beautiful Anglican choral Eucharist. That world I don’t pine for.

Now, as the shrinking and aging diocese of Pittsburgh starts closing churches, one of which may be ours, I feel somewhat differently. Three or four years after we entered the Church, we stopped going to the church in whose boundaries we live, the ugly one, for several reasons. One is that the 1961 building is so ugly: a semi-overturned ark, red brick-walled, with inane abstract stained glass windows, and behind the altar a tall bas relief of Jesus giving what seems to be the Queen’s wave, the one where she holds her wrist still and moves her hand from side to side. His left hand, too. The choir sits facing the people on risers to the right of the sanctuary.

Recent pastors have done what they could, one putting the tabernacle behind the altar, another putting a statue of Mary behind it to the right. But still, they can’t do much with the building. It doesn’t feel like a sacred space. It feels to me like a space made not to be sacred. Jesus is there, but the building tries to tell you he’s not.

This is a Catholic Church

The parish we go to in the working class town across the river was built by Italian immigrants one-hundred-some years ago. Everything in the church says “This is a Catholic church”: the stained-glass windows picturing the biblical stories, the traditional stations along the nave, the Lady and Saint Joseph shrines on either side of the altar with their candle racks and their big statues, the shrine to the right with the Pietà and the statues of Saint Pio, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Saint Anthony of Padua, the fresco of the Holy Family above the altar, the carved wood reredos with the realistic crucifix and the traditional gold tabernacle below it.

I still love the objective reality of the Church, and especially the reality that Jesus is here—and here no matter with what kind of church we surround him. Life can be hard. Faith can be hard. What I really need is for a church that says not only “Jesus is here,” but here is the history and here are the stories and here are Our Lady and the saints, this is where a taste of heaven can be found.

I light a candle at Saint Joseph’s shrine for a dying friend every Sunday. I then pray kneeling before that Pietà, meditating on the Mother of God holding her dead son, the dead son of God. I sometimes just sit in the pews and look around at all the things in that church that say “Jesus is here.” I need that.

Saint Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh. Photo: wikipedia.com/Dllu
Saint Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh. Photo: wikipedia.com/Dllu

David Mills, consulting editor of Sacred Architecture, is editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org) and is writing a book on Catholic death and dying for Sophia. He is the former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.