Some time ago, I was in Europe chatting with a young American priest. We were discussing the state of Catholicism in the different European countries I’d visited and I was going on and on about Bavaria, the Texas of Germany, where churches are unlocked all day and so many people show up on Holy Days that they put speakers outside the church for the masses to hear the Masses.
“And the best thing, Father,” I gushed, “Is that they actually pray in their churches!”
He looked confused.
“No, I don’t mean for Mass. I mean, throughout the day! Every time I go for my holy hour, four or five different people stop through to make a visit while I’m in there. It’s unreal! Americans don’t pray in churches. I can go weeks without seeing another person in the sanctuary outside of Mass.”
“Oh, that can’t be true,” he protested. “At the parish I worked in, we had people stopping through all the time.”
“That’s wonderful, Father,” I said tentatively, “but it’s not typical.”
“No, no, I’m sure it’s more common than you think…” he began, but trailed off. “I suppose you have more experience of this than I do.”
“I’m pretty sure I do,” I said apologetically. “And I’d say that of the 45 hours or so that I spend in churches each month—outside of Mass, of course—I’m alone for all but 5 hours. At best.”
Now, this isn’t counting adoration. And I suppose it’s possible that I’m just going to the wrong churches or at the wrong times. But I have reason to think that’s not the case.
The biggest reason, of course, is how often churches are locked. It’s gotten to the point where I call churches before heading over to ask if the building will be unlocked. Even in posh areas during business hours, the answer is often no. And when I ask to be let in to the church, people are confused.
“What for?” they ask.
“To pray.” I answer. It’s not a ridiculous question, after all. I might be there to practice the piano or to sketch the statues.
Sometimes, apparently, that’s not a good enough reason, and I’m told I can’t go in. Other times, the confusion remains, but they walk me over. Still other days find me staying after Mass for my prayer time and being asked to leave so they can lock up. I’ve been kicked out of more churches than most people will go into in their lives. And I understand that some churches need to be locked, especially in more crime-ridden areas. I certainly don’t expect anyone to allow a stranger to hang out with gold candlesticks at 10pm. But the fact remains that many (most?) Catholic churches in the United States seem to have no sense that people ought to be able to pray there.
There is something wrong with a Christian culture where I am looked upon with confusion and even suspicion for wanting to enter the presence of God incarnate to talk to him. This is the culture I’ve encountered in hundreds of churches across America. Even if it is possible to get in to pray, it’s so unusual that people look upon me with concern when they see me in the pews. After all, if a young woman’s come to church outside of Mass, someone must be dead or pregnant or something equally distressing.
I don’t think this has much to do with increased vandalism or lower rates of church attendance. I think it’s a reflection of the poverty of our faith, particularly our faith in the Eucharist.
If we really believed Jesus was present in the Eucharist, wouldn’t we make some kind of effort to spend time with him? If we understood that the King of the universe was waiting, alone and rejected, our Prisoner of Love in the tabernacle, wouldn’t we stop by? But most of us don’t. Even if we drive by unlocked churches on our way home from work, even if we walk by chapels in our hallways, we don’t stop in.
It’s not your fault that you don’t. Or not entirely. Has it ever been suggested to you that you make a chapel visit? Is your church open if you wanted to? Can you find the tabernacle if you do get in?
I spent years following the Lord before I was convicted that I needed to do my best to get close to him physically as well as spiritually. And I really think it makes a difference. Sure, you can pray in your bedroom or your car or your office or anywhere at all. It’s not like Jesus isn’t present everywhere you turn to him. But the advantage of praying in a church isn’t just the lack of distractions (or the more sacred nature of the distractions). It’s that the God you address is really there, ten feet away, gazing with love on you. His spirit is omnipresent, but his body and blood are waiting in the tabernacle.
Witnessing this faith in the real presence was a transformative moment for Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Walking through Frankfurt one day, she saw a woman with a shopping basket stopping in to pray at the cathedral. “This was something totally new to me,” she reflected years later. “In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited before, people simply went to services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”
I know a man—a Catholic father of five—whose first step toward Rome was a moment of wonder at the silence in a Catholic sanctuary before Mass, so different from the friendly chatter of his Baptist church. There was something different here, he remarked, some reverence paid particularly in this space. It was the silent visit of hungry souls to their Eucharistic Lord that first called him home.
There is something different about a Catholic church. Though the architecture might be oddly asymmetrical and the art unworthy of the name, though the plaster might be peeling and the pews painful, though the drafts might be bone-numbing and the sound system useless, he is there.
Caryll Houselander tells a striking story of a woman who first realized this difference:
“A Catholic who had never been inside any but a Catholic church was taken to see a pre-Reformation cathedral now in Anglican hands. It was filled with fine old carving, the tombs of Crusaders, a famous pulpit and font, and so on, but she was struck by only one thing: the absence of the Blessed Sacrament. ‘But it is empty!’ was all she could say. Until that time she had not had any special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, but from that day her devotion began.”1
His presence matters. And our life ought to be a response to that. I’m not saying you have to make a holy hour every day, although some of you certainly could make time for that. And maybe the only church is so far out of your way that it can’t be a daily thing.
But maybe it’s not. Maybe you can spend ten minutes a day in the very presence of the God who gave you everything.
If your church isn’t open, talk to your pastor and see what can be done. Maybe the retired Knights of Columbus can volunteer to be in the church six hours a day—an honor guard of sorts for the Lord—so that the powers that be feel comfortable leaving the church unlocked. If the church is only open during business hours, you could ask for an hour every evening that it will be unlocked for those who work days. Perhaps there’s a code that could be put on the door, available for all parishioners (or hobos) who ask the office. If you’re building a new church, figure out a way to have a room that’s open 24 hours with a view of the tabernacle.2
All I know is it’s not okay that we treat the very presence of God like it’s no different from any other room. And rebuilding a culture that hungers for our Eucharistic Lord starts by being the change—by spending time with him in his Real Presence and by encouraging others to do the same.
Dear Fathers, preach on it. Parents, take your children. Working people, mention your lunchtime chapel visit. Teachers, take your students for ten minutes on Fridays. Take time on your knees after Mass. Start your date night with the Lord. Make it a part of your parish events. A love of Jesus in the Eucharist is evidence of that personal relationship with Christ that transforms and animates his followers and the only way I can see to learn to love him is to act like we do until his grace makes it true.
Are you ready to join me in that strange, strange practice of being in the presence of the Person you’re talking to? I’d love to hear how you plan to keep him company—and any of your stories of confusing people by praying in churches.
- From The Reed of God which you simply must read immediately. [↩]
- If they ask my advice for the next Code of Canon Law, I’m going to say this ought to be required of all new construction. Also, all churches in developed nations must have websites with Mass times prominently featured on the home page and bulletins uploaded in a timely fashion to inform people of changes to the usual schedule. I’ve been bitten way too often by canceled Masses that you could only know about if you heard the announcements the Sunday before. [↩]