I recently had the opportunity to travel to Italy with a group of my high school students. We had spent months preparing for the trip and in every way it lived up to our hopes and expectations. We visited Roman ruins dating back thousands of years, the vastness of St Peter’s Square, medieval towns with narrow stone streets, and small family artisans whose work beguiled us.
We spent a few days exploring Florence, a city famous for its architectural beauty, its leather works, and its intellectual and artistic history. On Sunday night we decided to attend Mass at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the burial place of both Galileo and Michelangelo. We knew the mass would be in Italian, which none of us knew well, but thought that too would broaden our horizons.
Our footsteps echoed on worn tiles as we entered through a darkened side door just before the service was supposed to begin. To our surprise, the beautiful old Church was nearly empty, and our group of twenty almost doubled the congregation. A few chairs had been set up in front of the main altar, which we could now see was under construction.
Despite our weak language skills, the mass embraced us in its familiar rhythm, and I found myself sinking into prayer, surrounded by walls and sculptures that had greeted faith-seekers for centuries. But the construction scaffolding and empty Church reminded me that faith is not indestructible. It requires care, acknowledgement, even work.
Faith is lived in the real world. We build it with our hands reaching out toward each other. We strengthen it with every work done out of love, whether of stone, or speech or outstretched hand. Church buildings are metaphors, gathering places that help us remember who we are and where we come from, but even a beautiful basilica like Santa Croce will only last for so long.
The real church lives in the hearts of millions of people, each testifying to faith with actions large and small, living in compassion, forgiving in love, and building a kingdom of peace. Although I loved Italy, we will not be returning. Next year we visit an orphanage in Guatemala, a place full of living faith, equally under construction, but in no danger sadly of being empty soon. I can’t wait.