Sense and Nonsense: Empty Churches

The subject of this reflection is not why people do not go to Mass. Nor is it about Protestant churches or Jewish synagogues. Rather, it is about the myriads of churches that exist in the Catholic world. What are they “for”? Well, no doubt, they are places in which are held the Sacraments, those rites by which we define and practice our relation to God, as the Church teaches. Moreover, they are, often, places of quiet and beauty, of tradition, especially personal memory.

I recall Sacred Heart Church in Pocahontas, Iowa, for example. This is a lovely church, which both of my grandfathers had something to do with building, whose spire can be seen miles down the highway as you come from Fort Dodge through Gilmore City and the East. I remember my Aunt Fran singing beautifully in this church. I remember as a boy my grandfather’s funeral, and a couple of years later, my mother’s. I have this place etched in my memory as a place of worship and prayer. It is just there.

Not too long ago, I was over in Rockville, Maryland. Walking down the road that stretches from the entry of Georgetown Prep, where I was staying, I came across a local parish church. It was maybe a Thursday morning about ten. I thought I would cross the road and see if it was open—alas, many churches have to be locked, such is the status of our civility, and lack of it. This was the Church of the Holy Cross. It was open. No one was inside. I went in, sat awhile, said a rosary, and left.

Another day, I was walking along Georgia Avenue and came across another church, St. Catherine Laboure. It was a Friday, maybe three in the afternoon. I went in, a large, open church. It was partly filled with the local grammar school children, who were still singing the last hymn of the Mass. I sat there awhile. The nun in charge was giving orders about silence, about the fact that the first and second graders were to leave first. The other nuns and teachers were standing by their respective, uniformed classes. The organ was still playing.

I bring this up because I had been reading Edith Stein’s Life in a Jewish Family (1891-1916), which has recently been published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies here in Washington. Evidently, after she became a nun, Edith Stein was asked to write her memoirs. She had begun writing of her family and studies while she was still a student of Husserl, but never got back to finishing her account until 1939. She had been recalling her first visit to Heidelburg on her way to Freiburg to discuss her dissertation with Husserl.

This is what she wrote about her visit in 1916:

But the deepest impressions [of her visit to Heidelburg] were made on me by things other than the Romerweg and the Hirschgraben. We [Edith and Pauline Reinach] stopped in at the Cathedral for a few minutes; and, while we looked around in respectful silence, a woman carrying a market basket came in and knelt down in one of the pews to pray briefly. This was something entirely new to me. To the synagogues or to the Protestant churches which I had visited, one went only for services. But here was someone interrupting her everyday shopping errands to come into this church, although no other person was in it, as though she were here for an intimate conversation. I could never forget that.

This was the passage that had struck me so forcefully, that empty churches are not empty, that the custom of dropping into them to say a prayer, “for an intimate conversation” with God, as Edith Stein observed, is close to the essence of our prayer.

In this context, one other thing has struck me recently. Peter Berger gave the third Erasmus Lecture at St. Peter’s Church in New York. He entitled it, “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of Apostasy.” In the course of the lecture, Berger talked of St. Paul’s blunt declaration of anathemas to those who preach a gospel different from his. “Why would Paul utter such an illiberal thing?” Berger tried to fathom.

I can think of one very good reason indeed: because this false preaching denies ministry to those who desperately need it. Our congregations are full of individuals with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows, very few of which have anything to do with the allegedly great issues of history. These individuals come to receive the consolation and solace of the Gospel, instead of which they get a lot of politics.

It is said that Edith Stein, then a Catholic nun from a Jewish family, was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camp the morning after the Dutch Bishops publicly protested Nazi atrocities.

Josef Ratzinger, in his book Feast of Faith, remarked that it is those “who think they are too superior to talk simply and concretely with God who are in the habit of talking of ‘transcendence.’ ” I do this myself sometimes so as not (as Leo Strauss says) “to offend the heathen.” Sacred Heart Church in Pocahontas, Holy Cross and Catherine Laboure in Rockville, however, stand as silent testimonials of our faith. The lady in Heidelburg whom Edith Stein saw in 1916 in an empty church, Peter Berger in an analysis in St. Peter’s Church in New York City in 1987, and the German Cardinal were right. These silent conversations with, not “transcendence,” but God, about “the multitude of our afflictions and sorrows” in our churches empty of all but the sacrament need to take place no matter what our politics.

If our politics come first, I suspect, our churches will forget why they are, most of the time, empty in the first place, that is, to give us room to converse quietly with God. “Pray always,” Paul told us. Our pious politics, as Edith Stein quickly learned, will be lethal. What ultimately counts is how we stand before God in those moments when we are alone before Him. Empty churches are there for us to exclaim, with Edith Stein, “I shall never forget that,” on seeing that just any ordinary woman on her way to shop can converse there with God.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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