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Father, Son, And Holy Tourist Site

Our sacred spaces are no longer sacred

In 2016, as a pious 14-year-old, I wrote a letter to the pope detailing how my recent family holiday to Rome had essentially been ruined by everyone else who was in the city at the same time as me. Why did I think this was the pope’s problem? No, it wasn’t the pricey pizza or terrifying traffic, but what I perceived to be a lack of respect shown in the churches and holy places of the Vatican and Rome. I felt that the huge crowds of tourists, their incessant photo-taking and their constant brouhaha, were inhibiting the peace of places of worship. 

Despite its illegibility and lack of coherent structure, I was proud of this hand-written, well-mannered, and impassioned piece of writing. Today, though I do not have quite the same indignant righteousness, I largely agree with the younger me. Churches, cathedrals and basilicas are not being treated the way they deserve to be. 

Visiting the Sistine Chapel (with the 6 million other people who see it annually), I was overwhelmed by the number of people and their apparent inability to resist taking photos and turning the volume down. I am not necessarily asking for the complete ‘silenzio’ demanded (in ironically loud voices) by the security guards, but the chaotic clamour took up so much space that it was easy to forget that it was a sacred place. 

Ultimately, the art and architecture in these settings, along with their formal qualities, were created with the intention of inspiring and encouraging faith in the viewer. Whilst many seeing these works today may not be Christians (in 2021, for the first time in a census of England and Wales, fewer than half — 46.2 per cent — of participants said they were Christian), this intent should still be acknowledged and given its due respect. I don’t think that non-Christians should be banned or discouraged from going to churches. That discrimination would make no sense; we cannot learn about and experience the unknown (or the unbelievable) if we are not allowed to meet it. 

As my return to Rome a few years later showed, not much had changed since my letter, and I can understand why. Churches, especially large, old ones, are expensive to maintain. Even for those with free entry, more visitors means more money spent in gift shops and donations. But what is the point of preserving the physical church if the body of the church — its parishioners — cannot worship in peace? 

It is positive that so many people are able to visit these churches. Despite the fact that some places do charge — £19 for entry to Westminster Abbey — thankfully many don’t. Furthermore, people clearly feel welcome in these houses of worship, as they should. However, some visitors may feel welcome simply because they don’t see it as a sacred place, and consequently also may not realise that they are being ‘rude’. Here, guidance should be provided in a charitable, non-reprimanding way. 

Religious tourism is incredibly popular, and not only to the grand, famous churches. Apart from artistic and cultural reasons, there is strong evidence that the tourist visiting a church seeks a spiritual, introspective experience in which they are removed from their habitual life and self, whether aligned with an organised religion or not. Importance is placed on the individual’s experience and desire to get away from the hectic outdoors. This is hard to achieve in the hubbub of tourist crowds. More peaceful churches would benefit non-believers too. 

Username ‘Mary_Fran’ summed it up in an online forum: “People can’t resist the urge, apparently, to be boobs” when visiting churches. But, as the resounding mantra of one of my favourite hymns goes: “All Are Welcome” (including, I would argue, those people considered ‘boobs’). There just needs to be a change in attitude. Yes — come visit churches! But come with respect, and the knowledge that, though this place may not mean a lot to you, it certainly does to many other people. You too will have a better experience because of it.

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