I write this post from an internet attic above a grocery store in Belgium. I´m using a French keyboard, which has a different home row than I am used to. So please forgive this post´s brevity and/or typos!
Both my parents´ grandparents immigrated from Belgium, so most of my family history comes from here. Both sides of my family are Catholic, and Belgium is full of Catholic churches. We toured a couple of them and I expected the strange blend of tourism and devotion that I´d encountered when visiting St. Joseph´s Oratorim in Montreal and the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City–cameras flashing and tourists gaping even as believers made pilgrimages on their knees up the steps to the Church; stopping to pray on each step, bending to kiss the ground, and clutching rosaries in their hands.
A cousin took us to a Church in Ghent where it was all tourism and no devotion — crowds squeezed past one another into the different chambers, holding phones to their ears to listen to commentary in their language of choice. Today, my sister and I visited another medieval church — this one was dark and smelled musty, seemingly of little interest to tourists or practicing Catholics. Even the Crucifix was gray from years of neglect. Votive candles burned on both ends of the church, the only signs that there were still believers who had come here. But we read in a tour book that in this church, Mass is only said once a year.
My cousin told me yesterday that, while most of Belgium is Catholic, only 10% of them practice. I saw the affect of that in this dusty, neglected, ancient, yet still beautiful church. I felt sad that so many of these beautiful churches stand empty–that they´re essentially “ghost churches,” as though the sacred is something from the distant past. I had the uneasy sensation that I was a lone believer in a dying faith. And I was completely convinced that this is something worth preserving.
In that moment, I felt the intersection of my priorities with the priorities of more conservative Catholics. In that moment, I found our middle ground. We’re both fighting so hard because we know we have something worth fighting for — I try to preserve my faith by pushing for the doors to open wider, by fighting for changes that I believe are necessary–and that the Holy Spirit is calling us to make; while they try to preserve it by closing the doors tight so nothing threatening can get inside. And change can feel so threatening.
But as I stood looking up at the stained glass windows through a haze of dust, I felt a kinship with those who seek to preserve the Church in ways I do not, and even in ways that I fight. Because I know we could both stand in that empty church and say, “Yes, this is important to me, too.”