I am not a religious person by any definition, and yet one of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is visit churches. And this is especially true in Italy, a country that’s simply covered in churches. For one thing, Italy’s churches are often where you’ll find lots of any given city’s great art and/or architecture. For another, I just love soaking in the history of churches, imagining the number of people who have come through that space and worshiped there over the years. And despite my non-believer status, that’s even led me to attend church services in Italy a few times myself – something I highly recommend, even to other non-believers.
Churches in Italy are small communities, even if they’re in big cities. The people who go to those churches every week know each other well, so the large-ness of the city doesn’t matter inside those walls. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve seen enough Catholic masses to know the rhythm – so I find them fascinating and meditative, especially in languages I’m not 100% familiar with. And there’s always that heart-warming part where everyone stands up and greets their neighbors – which includes the visitors – with a handshake and a smile.
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Once I went to church with my mother in the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza. It was a rainy Sunday, and the husband had taken the car and gone for the day to see a Formula 1 race. He was coming back that afternoon to pick us up so we could continue on our way, so we had that day to wander around Vernazza. Because of the rain, we ducked into the church that’s right off the main square – it’s a church that inexplicably has its backside turned toward the pretty piazza – and sat there enjoying the chilled air, the smell of the stones and the sound of rain outside.
After a few minutes, people started filing into the church who clearly weren’t tourists. As the pews filled up in front of us (we were sitting in the back), the people who came in later plucked chairs off the neat stacks at the back of the church and set them up in rows behind the pews. I leaned over to my mom and asked if maybe we should go, since seating was clearly at a premium and we weren’t exactly there for the service. But my mother wanted to stay, and so we did – and I’m very glad we did. We stayed for the whole service, respectfully listening to the priest, standing and sitting when everyone else did, and greeting our neighbors when we were told to with a warm “piacere.”
It was a sweet experience, a piece of time where the usual frenetic vacation pace was slowed considerably and I had a moment to breathe. And while I wouldn’t call it a religious experience, I think both my mother and I left the church with smiles on our faces.
So, the next time you’re in Italy over a Sunday and you hear the morning church bells ringing, follow them and go inside.
Photo by: Les Butcher