Sightseeing Religiously

The author has a realization while travelling abroad.

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My family is Roman Catholic. Though I have never been particularly religious, I found meaning in attending mass at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice when given the chance. In case you’ve never seen it, it’s a massive, millennium-old cathedral that combines Gothic and Byzantine architectural styles in the most beautiful way.

This summer, my family and I traveled to Italy with a group of approximately 40 other tourists. It was our first time traveling abroad together in seven years, and it also might be one of our last times doing so, since my brother is in college, and I will soon follow. We spent 11 days sightseeing in Florence, Venice, Rome, and Pompeii, among other places.

We entered the church for the first time as tourists, complete with the requisite tote bags, camera phones, and entry tickets. Not only was the place was huge, but the sheer volume of art was overwhelming. As if the building’s structure wasn’t ornate enough, every square inch of the interior was caked with imagery. From the lowest part of the floor to the tallest spire, no iota of space was left untouched. “Only true devotion can lead to something being built like this,” I thought. “This is truly a masterpiece.” We left only when the members of the parish hurriedly scuffled out the tourists so they could set up for the Sunday service.

Hours later, we returned for mass. The clergy had rearranged the setup of the room so it would be suitable for prayer. This time, the setting sun hit the myriad of golden tiles of the ceiling at an angle that made it glow. Worshipers waited respectfully for the service to begin. Meanwhile, the organist rendered hymns that were familiar to me from the Polish mass I attend in Brooklyn. The clergy dressed the same way, and spoke the same way too, albeit in a language I couldn’t understand. Cognitively, I knew that certain standards were held by each division of the Catholic community, but this time was somewhat different. I stepped out of the church that time feeling like I had been a part of something bigger than myself. I have a background that spans over time as well as space—that it inhabits multiple continents, yes, but has also percolated masses of generations, over many centuries.

We had long since left Venice when our tour guide took us to a chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. This was a man who forfeited a life of luxury for poverty and simplicity. He is among the most significant figures in Christian history.