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The taxi had dropped us a couple of blocks away from the Campo dei Miracoli.  He had brought us from the airport through the streets of Pisa, across the Arno river, then on more narrow roads until it made no sense to go any further. He had talked non-stop since picking us up, offering suggestions on how to spend our time and telling me, in answer to my query on his excellent English, that twenty years ago he had thought he would leave Italy for the United States, but, his voice trailed off to say, it hadn’t worked out. It was too bad, he said, for over there, you get paid more money and things cost less. Here we get paid less, and it costs so much more to live.

It was not hard to find the Field of Miracles after that, for all we had to do was follow the crowd, and once we arrived, that is what hit us. That: so many…people. And two other things: it’s going to rain and we don’t have an umbrella and it really does lean.

And it does. The Leaning Tower of Pisa really does lean, and it is much more dramatic in person than in photographs, since the straight right angles of the rest of the world are so much more present in contrast.

Even in the rain, even before the height of tourist season, so many people. Look at all of them.  Why are they here? To see an iconic image – and it is fun to be there with everyone else, most of us experiencing it for the first and probably only time in your life – that sense of community you experience in tourism. We are here, you are here, seeing this thing, and together we will remember it too and you – speaking English, Italian, German, French, Japanese, Madarin, Hindi..you’ll be a part of the remembering. I won’t just remember a white tower of marble. I’ll remember drizzle and security guards and the child scampering ahead of me and the older couple puffing behind me as we trudge up, leaning.

So yes, there we were. As we finished with the tower and moved to the church and then the baptistery, I was struck by what these crowds were about on this spot. They were walking around and in, studying, photographing and contemplating just those things: a church. A baptistery. And a tower with bells that for centuries had called not tourists, but worshippers and seekers, not just to see and gawk, but to be. To be with.

I thought of the other sights we had seen over the past three weeks – this was our last night in Italy.  All of the crowds we had joined, all the tickets we had purchased and photographs we had taken? Most of them had been of places where people had been baptized, where they had come to seek what is real, to connect with it, to have hope. All of these places had been heavy with images, and not just any images, and really the same images from place to place: Jesus hanging on a cross. Disciples following, listening. Saints gazing out, looking up, reaching. All of these had been places where even now, people touched by the hands of others who had been, back in the mists of history, touched by the apostles in the stained glass windows still talked about that Jesus. Even now, in most of those places, seekers still came to meet that Jesus hanging on a cross, to find life in his life, offered to them to eat and drink.

People don’t come to church anymore.

But they do, don’t they?

I travel a lot, and everywhere I travel, I end up in churches, for there are churches everywhere. The United States is not as heavy with historical and artistically-significant churches as Europe is, of course, but still, in every major city, you’ll find a downtown Catholic church or two of historical import.

And most of the time, you will find scores of people streaming in and out of that church during the day, perhaps even hundreds.

People don’t come to church anymore.

A few weeks ago, we were in New Orleans, and the scene I witnessed there is similar to what I’ve witnessed in other American Catholic Churches of this type.

It’s St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, as iconic as they come. We popped in mid-day on a Saturday, and of course we were not alone. Dozens were in and out during the short time we were in there. A small group was being led on a tour by a Cathedral docent. It was a busy place.

People don’t come to church anymore.

What struck me, as it does in most similar situations, was the absence of printed materials that would help people understand the building. (Not to speak of actual human beings there to welcome and answer questions) There was a trifold pamphlet available for a dollar that had the most basic information about the building, but no detailed guides to the interior, to explanations of symbolism or structures.

It’s astonishing to me.

St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans

I think every church should have the materials I’m about to suggest – every one – but particularly churches that experience a lot of tourism. There’s no excuse not to have these. None. Not if you are serious about evangelization, that is. Not if you really and actually believe the stuff.

  1. A detailed guide of the historic and artistic aspects of the building.
  2. A guide identifying the important aspects of the structure and interior and explaining their meaning. As in: statues, crucifix, tabernacle, altar, confessionals, baptismal and holy water fonts, candles, altar rail, episcopal chair, choir stalls…whatever you’ve got. Explain it.
  3. A basket of rosaries. Holy cards, at the very least, and possibly medals related to the church’s patron saint.
  4. Copies of the New Testament, or at least the Gospels.
  5. Lots of bulletins or other parish information, presented with a welcoming “y’all come back!” and “let us know if you need anything” sensibility.

And yes, all of this should be free.  And there should be  a person sitting at a table with a smile on his or her face, answering questions. All day.

Listen. When have a parish of a thousand families, are thrilled when thirty adults show up at your religious education program and totally ignore the hundreds that come through to visit your historical church on a daily basis…you’ve got some blinders on and you might want to think about removing them.

Of course, the first immediate object relates to cost. Catholics hate giving anything away. We even charge parents to teach their children about Jesus. Go figure. But, as a long-time observer of this Catholic scene, I can safely say…it can be done. This is how you do it:

You make it a priority, you tell everyone that this your priority, and you invite them to join in the mission.

You say, “We have this amazing evangelizing opportunity. We have thousands of people come through our church every year to tour it. We are going to make presenting them with the truth and beauty of faith in Christ a priority. We need ten thousand dollars a year for free materials. These are the materials. Who’s in?”

I’m certain that when people are presented with a very specific pledge on how their funds are going to be used, and it is a valuable step in evangelization like this, they will step up.

And sure, if you want to produce something glossier with photos, do – and charge for that. But materials that invite people into a deeper consideration of the meaning of the objects and structures around them, a deeper consideration that might lead them to salvation?

Yeah, those should be free.

My point: I’ve been in historic Catholic churches all over the United States and rarely, if ever, seen materials like this available for tourists. And I’ve looked. Believe me, I’ve looked.

(Here’s last year’s rant on a similar score, inspired by a visit to Savannah, where hundreds come daily to the Cathedral during the Christmas season to see the Nativity scene.)

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No one comes to church anymore.

Of  course, I think these kinds of materials should be in the vestibule of every Catholic church, even if it was built in 1973 and looks like the banquet room at the Holiday Inn. You still get seekers, every Sunday, and maybe even every day.  There are many ways to meet those people and begin to draw them to Christ. Personal encounters are important. But so is the simple act of just having information freely available and invitingly presented.

In fact, I believe I have written before about a related idea: someone (publishing company, diocese, what have you) coming up with a basic template for, say, “A guide to our church” – that would have the theological and spiritual meanings already written up, perhaps with basic schematic sketches of say, a statue or altar or tabernacle – that would be customizable by an individual church.

Or, you know, you could just make one.

What is a “welcoming church?” Is it one in which elderly ushers accost latecomers and force them into the pew of their own choosing? Is it one in which we are ordered to awkwardly greet our neighbors or raise our hands and share where we’re from?

Or is a “welcoming church” one which:

  1. Has open doors as much as is practically possible.
  2. Has a congregation formed in the ways of simple Christian hospitality: don’t glare at children. Scoot your tail over and make room for other people in the pew. When Mass is over, make eye contact with strangers, smile, and say, “Good morning.” If you note possible confusion or hesitation, offer help in a friendly way. Don’t glare at children.
  3. Has free materials available: What to do at Mass. This is what the Stuff in Our Church Means. Here’s who Jesus is. Here are some good prayers.
  4. Has bulletins/cards/flyers and people sending the message: Here’s who we are. Come and talk. Let us know if we can help you. Here’s how you can join us in helping others. Maybe even a newcomer’s/seeker’s coffee once a month.

In essence:

Once a week, someone different on staff or in the volunteer corps should walk into your church with the eyes of a seeking, curious, nervous stranger.  What questions would that person have? Is there any attempt to answer those questions? What vibe would they be picking up? Would they have easy, non-threatening, non-awkward access to information that will make it easy for them to return and dig deeper?

In my limited experience, European churches can sometimes be a bit – just a bit  – better about providing informative materials, and of course many have porters who function more as guards and may not be the friendliest human beings on the planet, but at least they are there to answer questions.

So, for example, this, the first couple of pages from the free guide from Florence, which at least sets the tone. You can click on the images to get a clearer, readable, view.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

"amy welborn"

EPSON MFP image

 

Do you have evidence that I’m wrong? I hope so! Share it! I would love to see what your church provides, especially if it’s a tourist destination.

This was one of my favorites – I found it lovely and charming. It was at a small church in northern Arizona. St. Christopher’s in Kanab – very welcoming, aware that it’s a tourist stop – not because of its history, but because it’s on the way to and from the Grand Canyon and other place:

So simple to do. But it communicates: We believe.  It’s important. And we want to share it with you.

People do come to church. They come out of curiosity. They come to seek. They come to experience beautiful music and art. They come to find Pokemon. They walk by on ghost tours. They come because they’re hungry and homeless. They come to find shelter from  the sun, the cold or the rain.

They’re about to come in great numbers because it’s Christmas. Are you ready? Are you excited that they’re coming? Are you thrilled to know that there are people who are going to meet Jesus in a deeper way because they come to Mass at Christmas at your parish? Or are you irritated, resentful, dismissive, and already ready for it to be over and things to get back to normal?

So yes, they come.

The question is…do we really even care? 

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PHEW.

Sorry for the silence. Our internet went out yesterday, and I didn’t want to bother anyone about it…my phone has data, so my family in the US can still get in touch with me, anyway.

But we arrived  back from Florence today to find everything was back up, so I’ve cleaned the kitchen, repacked all the souvenir purchases, Instagrammed a bunch, so here I am.

We are staying about 10 miles outside of Florence at an apartment in the country that I booked on AirBnB two days before we arrived. It is a nice little apartment with all that we could want, but just a *little* more remote than is ideal, plus it’s been too cool to swim, so the advertised pool is of no use. That’s okay. I could maybe stay at a Motel 6 in Birmingham for what I’m paying to stay at an apartment amid olive groves in the Tuscan countryside, so it remains A Deal.

Before we actually got here, I wasn’t sure how much time we would want to spend in Florence – which is why I didn’t even attempt for us to stay in Florence, proper. I had heard so many conflicting things: Florence is great. Florence is my favorite. Florence is crowded and dirty. Florence is teeming with tourists and poseur American art students. 

So I figured…stay outside of Florence, have the car, give it a day, and if a day was enough, we’d have other options.

(You are saying…um…philistine? You think “a day” in Florence might be “enough?” Well…just remember that I have two kids and we are at the end of almost three weeks here. I didn’t know if they would just be at the point of Enough with museums and cities and such, so I was ready to be flexible.)

Well, we’ve ended up spending both days in Florence. I won’t say that I adore it, but one day definitely wasn’t enough, and of course two still just scratches the surface, but given where we are on this trip…two days is good.

I’m not up for narrative, so I’ll bullet point.

  • We are not driving into Florence. We go to Scanducci, park at the big grocery store (not kidding – biggest grocery store I’ve ever been in, including Super Wal-Marts), then go to the tram that runs right into Florence. Free parking, no city driving, very easy.
  • After much research and internal debate I ended up getting a Firenze Card. I’ll write more about this in a separate post because it’s a popular topic among travelers, but I’ll just say that for me, it was worth it.  No, the dollar value of the tickets I would have bought was less than what I paid for the card, but the convenience of not having to reserve specific times at the Accademia or Uffizi is worth that extra $20. Everyone values different things, and I value flexibility and freedom.
  • Tuesday, we got off the tram and went straight to the Duomo area. We went to the baptistry first, then the Duomo. Climbed the campanile. Which was enough to make me decide I was *not* climbing the duomo dome itself. So far this trip, I have climbed a Bologna tower, up to St. Peter’s Dome, the Siena duomo and still have Pisa to go. Plus a zillion other stairs. I’m good.
  • Then meandering and a sit-down lunch, which was nothing special.
  • More meandering down to the Ponte Vecchio. Talked about it, crossed it, walked to the Pitti Palace, which I sped-read about and decided we would not be interested in. So we walked back across the bridge, I talked to them about the 1966 flood and pulled up some photos of it on my phone,  and then we made our way up to the Accademia.
  • On the way, spent time in San Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world. Much wonderful art, Michelangelo and Galileo buried there.
  • Then to the Accademia, to see David. The line for unreserved tickets snaked around the block (this was at about 5, and the museum was open into the evening). With the FC, we went to the ticket office, I had to pay a 4E “reservation fee” for each of the boys (showing J’s passport as proof of his under-18 age, which pleased him), but then got that done and waltzed in. See, I told you it was worth it.
  • Saw David,which, like the Eiffel Tower, no matter how iconic it is, is still astonishing at first sight.
  • More moving, though, were the Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures in the hall leading up to David.
  • Poked around a bit more, including in the musical instrument museum. Made our way back to the train, got back to Scanducci, bought a roast chicken and other things at the grocery store and drove back …to no internet. #Sad.
  • They explored the property, found scads of snails and some horses amidst the olive trees.
  • Up this morning, same routine: park at the grocery, tram it to Florence.
  • Started at S. Maria Novella, which is near the train station. Some fascinating art, including a Giotto crucifix.
  • If you have traveled to Catholic sites, particularly in Italy, you know that they can be strict about clothing. Once in Sicily, I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and was handed a IMG_20160608_112235shawl when I walked into a church. I’ve heard it’s one of of the reasons there used to be so many scarf-vendors around St. Peter’s (didn’t see *any* this time…mostly selfie-sticks). I visited a Hindu temple outside of Atlanta and even though my skirt was barely above the knee…nope. Had to wrap up in a big black…wrap they hand out. S. Maria Novella has a solution I’d not seen before: Robes. They are mass produced, thin robes packaged in plastic. You waltz in wearing short shorts? Here’s a robe.
  • Then back across the Arno to a branch of the Natural History Museum that is there. We like animals, I thought it would be a nice break, plus they have a collection of 18th-19th century wax human anatomical models I wanted to see. Bologna has a similar collection that I could never seem to get to, so I was particularly keen on this.
  • It was a good idea. A quick walk-through, yes, but they enjoyed it – the animals, that is. It is an old collection (the kind of thing I really appreciate – seeing older, quirky museum collections) and with many of the specimens, you could see the taxidermist’s seam lines and so on.
  • The anatomical models were FANTASTIC. The boys were skeeved out, but I could have stayed much longer. There were a number of people there sketching, so the collection still has great value, obviously.
  • Then a quick counter lunch here, which was far superior to yesterday’s lunch. That is usually the case, I have found.
  • Up across the Arno. The Galileo Science Museum is right next to the Uffizi, so we hit that first. Great, great exhibits. It’s not huge, but is certainly dense, centered on a couple of collections of historic scientific instruments including, of course, Galileo – a couple of his telescopes and other instruments, as well as relics – a finger bone and a tooth!
  • They advertise an “interactive” section, but don’t go thinking that it will be anything like your typical American science museum (about which I have mixed feelings, btw). It’s all of two rooms, with maybe 5 “hands on” activities.
  • Then the Uffizi – the FC card got us through within minutes, and without that 4E kid fee either.
  • More on the Uffizi later (as in…next week). I enjoyed it, but it was mobbed and a couple of times it was challenging to see the art because of the tour groups.
  • ….and back.
  • Of course remember that all of this is interspersed with regular gelato stops. Always.

Check out Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) for more…and here are some random pics.

Tuesday:

Wednesday:

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All right, the last couple of days in a quick nutshell.

Sunday morning, I spent a while wandering Sorano looking for another Catholic church I swore must be there. Indeed, one church was right around the corner from our apartment, but as I interpreted it, the Mass times were 8 and 11:30 – the first being too early, the second being later that I wanted.

When I mapped it, I thought I had seen another Catholic church, but when I set out walking..it was nowhere to be found and my data didn’t work. So..I wandered. Which was fine.

Got the boys up, then we left at 11:29.30 for 11:30 Mass, which is nice. The congregation was composed of 18 people, including the three of us. More on that later when I can be more reflective. It was sad, with one tiny glimmer of hope who wished us pace with great sincerity.

We then headed to the path below the village that led to our own area’s via cave – of San Rocco. It was quite a hike up – and when we were back “home” looking up at the plateau upon which we’d stood, it was hard to believe we’d done it. But worth it. Several Etruscan burial sites, caves and niches, and a small (locked) Romanesque church.

And on the way back…it started raining. We were wet, certainly, but not soaked or hurt, so who cares. We hung up our cloths, dried off, ate, waited for the sun to come out, and made our next moves – a tour of the town’s castle (I didn’t take any photos because it was just the three of us, an elderly American couple and our sweet Italian tour guide with her charming, precise English, and it just didn’t seem like the right time. For most of its history, it belonged to the Orsinis. If there is one aspect of history I am emphasizing to the boys on this trip it is simply the patchwork history of Italy, and I think they are getting it. I know I am certainly coming to a more solid grasp of it myself.

The sun was out, so we decided to head over to Pitigliano – this amazing place – where we actually parked (free, because I had actually studied up on it and understood that if the lines were white, the space was free), wandered, checked out the duomo (Mass was happening), the Jewish quarter, and ate some dinner. There was a substantial Jewish population in Pitigliano until World War II, when most left, but the synagogue and other historic buildings are still maintained – not open on Sunday. What was terribly sad was that the complex was guarded by two military guys with machine guns. How tragic that that is necessary.

****

Back to the home base, where we did a bit more wandering, up to the rock that has been built up into a viewing wall. We spent a lot of time up there looking, studying the landscape, talking, and imagining the people – from the Etruscans to modern times – who have inhabited the place.

***

Then it was time to go. The apartment is located in a pedestrian-only zone (as is most of the town), so you can’t park there. The instructions I got for where to park were basically this: “Don’t go in the main gate of the village. Keep going and you will come to some nut trees near a power station with a yellow sign. Park there, walk down the stone steps and you will find the road to the apartment.”

O-kay. 

It took me a couple of tries – I drove past once, couldn’t imagine that that was actually where I was supposed to leave my rental car, but the road led me up, up, up a mountain across a gorge from the village. What was funny was that when I finally found a place to turn around, not one, but TWO cars pulled into the same place behind me, both drivers studying maps when they pulled in. Solace in a confused community.

Well, it was a safe place, the car was fine, and the walk wasn’t bad, except a bit of a chore up the stairs with suitcases. But I didn’t do that, so not my problem, eh guys?

***

The drive to Siena took a bit longer than I thought because I turned off on one wrong road, and instead of backtracking, I decided to just keep going an alternative way. It’s fine. It’s all gorgeous scenery.

***

When people drive to Siena, one of the great concerns is parking.  Most Italian cities have what they call ZTL zones – historic zones in which driving is limited to those who have special permits. If you venture into a ZTL, you apparently get zapped with a massive fine, and everyone is super scared. I didn’t have a problem – I just followed the “P” signs which indicated a lot with available spaces – Il Campo – and parked there. Easy.

***

We only did the basics, unfortunately, but they were quite enough for one afternoon – the Campo, the Duomo, inside and from up top, and the Catherine of Siena sites, include the relic of her head, which was not at all gruesome.

I’ll write more on that later.

It was a rainy day, but not too bad. We found shelter in churches and gelateria. Which is a metaphor for something.

Then a rather tortuous drive to the outskirts of Florence – probably more tortuous than it should have been – found the new place. We went to the biggest supermarket we’ve been to on this trip – an Esselunga – and stocked up, and then drove back up the hill to eat things like salami and prosciutto sandwiches, pepperocini stuffed with tuna. a cold pesto pasta dish, cheese, bread, olives and Italian chicken nuggets – “just to see”.

I obviously hope to get into Florence today…we’ll see…

Random photos I don’t have time to label. Seriously – follow me on Instagram or on Snapchat (amywelborn2) to get more during the day. I have videos on both – and remember Snapchat stuff is only up for 24 hours. You have to download the Snapchat app and register, but it’s painless – and you can make your kids cringe with embarrassment that you’re on Snapchat, and possibly drive them off of it as a result, so that’s a win.]

(Photo related – the blog header is from the Siena duomo – heads of popes lining the walls. I am convinced that whoever designed Disney’s Haunted Mansion had visited this place. It’s all I could think of as I looked at them looking down at me with their various expressions….)

 

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