Rather than simply touring the great churches where we went, we did out best to attend Mass at each one. I had thought that the act would make me connect with the Catholics of the past and be a deeply moving experience. It didn't, but it was.
First off, it was like attending Mass in a museum. The scale and depth of the places is overwhelming and that filled you with awe. A sense of awe, however, is not the proper frame of mind (at least for me) for Mass. For me, I prefer a sense of comfort and familiarity, a place where I can relax and soak up the sacrament. I posted earlier about how it felt to go to these churches and see the glorious work therein. Mass was a different story.
While the churches are spectacular, you quickly lose sight of the artwork of the place and focus on the sacrament itself during Mass. In terms of what you experience during Mass, it doesn't matter whether you're in a tiny chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by crude, Indian art or in St. Mary Maggiore, which might be the most beautiful thing ever created by human hands. That realization brought home the utter truth of something I had heard over and over again, but never really understood.
The Church is the people, not the buildings. The sculptures, paintings, frescoes, icons and reliquaries are all marvelous, but they are outside of the sacrament, outside of the experience.
The outstanding film, Lillies of the Field, had it right. While the people that came together in the 16th Century to build this basilica or that produced something wonderful beyond words, so have the parishes in the California Central Valley, the villages of Kenya and the remote regions of the Amazon. And that is what connects us.