What’s more important to you, people or places? Before you answer recall the development of the neutron bomb some years ago that promised the advantage of exploding and killing all people in the area but sparing the buildings and other assorted infrastructure. There’s a pragmatic solution to population control and conservation of resources. In a recent conversation with a fellow priest I mentioned a pilgrimage sight that I found boring; he exclaimed that he loved that place. It nudges into thinking about the attachment to places as opposed to attachment to people. It’s the “If I can’t see Jesus, I can least see the places where He was born, walked, died, etc.”
In a fit of pilgrimage fervor a priest friend and I traveled to Rome recently for eight days. My friend naturally wanted to see Assisi, since he had been born on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and bore Francis as a middle name. We took the train to the holy place and went at once to St. Francis’ tomb; there we found a reverence the envy of every tabernacle shoved to the nether regions of a modern church. The reverence was palpable but it was not the place, it was the people. On their knees, lighting candles, standing with heads bowed, looking up at the sarcophagus with eyes of serenity; it was the people who imparted the feeling, or rather, channeled the Spirit of peace as a gift of God. Francis’ legacy was his spiritual reform, not a place.
However, let’s look at the place—Assisi. A quaint town with beautiful churches and a cleanliness with order that my friend described best as “too perfect.” At least the Eternal City has the humility to show off its dirtier side and the Christian chaos that is Rome. Sure Rome has the same tourist traps as Assisi and places that purvey statues of saints for all economic tastes, but they’re not as clean or modern. Assisi is institutionalized for the tourist, excuse me, I mean pilgrim. Nothing wrong with pilgrimages and tourism, they keep Italy running, but to think a place is more important than the people (in this case St. Francis, St. Clare and all pilgrims) is a mistake. God works through people who happen to be in places, not places that happen to have people.
“But Father, don’t you want to visit the Holy Land?” Don’t get me started!