Our Catholic churches — Christmas gifts far and near

The interior of St. Mary's Staghall Church, County Cavan, Ireland.

“In My Father’s House” / Paul Thomas Moore

Several years ago, I was walking and talking with a good friend of mine as we passed by a church that was undergoing renovations. The good friend was also a good priest, a man with a highly developed social conscience and a heart for the poor.

Although a loyal son of the church who would never question her publicly, he was — strictly between him and me — unsupportive of the extensive (and admittedly expensive) renovations. “Wouldn’t it be better to give the money to the needy?” he asked.

As we were old pro-life colleagues, I expect he also would have been fine with more support for women in distressed pregnancies. To paraphrase his two other main points, he asked: “Did churches really need to be such grand and glorious works of art?” and (2) “Wouldn’t it be more Christian to dress our churches more modestly?”

I appreciated his candor, and he had almost drawn me over to his side. Still . . . looking back at the church, I was won again to this grand and glorious praise for the Creator of Heaven and earth. When the Pharisees told the disciples to hush up, the Lord said, “If they were silent, the stones would cry out.” And rise up — the granite spire I was admiring sprang from the same impulse as when the disciples “began to praise God aloud for the mighty deeds he had done.” (Luke 19:40)

BEACONS SHINING THROUGH GENERATIONS

I am often reminded of the many churches I have loved, known, and admired that were built by generations of much more limited means than our own. I am constantly humbled by what they created — “something beautiful for God,” to borrow the title of the book that introduced Mother Teresa to the Western world.

And yet, the poor were taken care of — hospitals were built through the faith, food pantries established, children taught, the pregnant and alone comforted — was that in spite of, or perhaps in part “in-spire-d” by, beautiful churches?

In 2008, my wife and I visited the two-room Irish homestead, now a cowshed, where my grandmother Sarah had lived with her family of nine before marrying and emigrating to Canada. Meanwhile, the local church the family attended is a peaceful, well-kept, Son-lit place of worship. In the world of poverty my grandmother inhabited, it must have seemed like another world — which of course it was intended to point toward.

My siblings and I inherited the faith nurtured in that church from Sarah’s daughter, our mother. We have been blessed by any and all renovations that have allowed St. Mary’s Staghall Church to shine forth then and now as a beacon.

“HOW LOVELY IS YOUR DWELLING PLACE”

Another Marian beacon shone forth for me recently here on this side of the Atlantic. I was driving home after receiving an early-morning COVID test, and . . . I don’t know . . . just feeling a little anxious for myself and our country. I glanced up, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” (Psalm 121:1)

In the distance, over the rooftops, I spied the spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, and I instantly felt held in strong arms.

Those sentinel spires remind me of the Lord’s reassurance that the Kingdom of God is among us. It is indeed fitting that they are majestic, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord.” (Psalm 84:1)

Not to argue with my priest friend when he is not here — I’ll send him this column and duck — but his living out his vocation in faithful generosity is, to me, like seeing those spires of the church in the distance. It is a sign of the High Priest’s overwhelming overture in sharing the sacred trust of the Royal priesthood with him.

The beautiful churches of this land are gifts bestowed on us as beloved children of our ancestors and our Lord, gifts we are invited to unwrap on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and throughout the year.

Paul Thomas Moore is a Catholic commentator and singer-songwriter. He and wife Mary Louise attend St. Mary of Lourdes in Germantown Hills. He can be reached at paulthomasmoore@hotmail.com .

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