Building a New Church on the Camino

Stage 19: Leon to Hospital de Órbigo
Official 32.76km // iPhone Step Count: 34.5km

Stage 20: Hospital de Órbigo to Astorga
Official: 15.65km // iPhone Step Count: 16.7km

Sitting beneath an intricately designed gold-ladened high alter, my heart should swell before the majesty of this mighty feat of human talent, but rather my heart aches and my stomach churns. 

Town after town, the highest most intricate structures are the churches. Each town has their own mini-cathedrals filled with golden, ivory, and marble statues covering the entire interior. While their intentions were to display what their town viewed as important, their faith in God, (an interesting contrast as now our tallest buildings are constructed to the gods of industrialization), I cannot help but call to question its stance in light of the life of Christ.

Would Christ want this?

Would a simple, poor man of humble origins want all of this expensive gold? 

Would a man, who spent the majority of his life with the poor, want a marble statue of him wearing a golden robe?

Would a man, who spoke out against the bureaucracy of the pharisees and sadducees, want an entire bureaucracy constructed in his name? 

Sitting in a “small side alter,” that is larger than my local church, in a Cathedral that has since been converted into a museum, I cannot help but think how God must look down in pity at our stupidity. 

I imagine St. Francis Assisi, who famously left his wealthy family, might again run out of town naked, when his eyes see the sight of the golden statues constructed in his honor. 

I imagine Christ might cry as poor beggars present themselves, humbled, beneath the story-high arches of this massive cathedral doors that now only contain the mystery of the depth of its pocketbook. 

I imagine Jesus might tear down the golden facade, just as he overturned tables in the temple, and reveal the bare-bone bureaucratic bullshit of our false faith embellished upon these earthen stones.

For my entire life, I have worked for, with, and in the church. Every job I’ve had has been under the guise of the Roman Catholic Church. Every year of my education has been carefully groomed by the magisterium. The majority of my volunteer hours have been at the benefit of countless Catholic charities. Moreover, my undergraduate and eventual graduate degrees will be in Catholic Theology. I say all this not to brag, but to lament the brokenness I see within my home.

The Jesus Christ I have come to know was a man who looked into his community and responded to their needs. Jesus met with women and treated them with respect and authority, a counter-cultural response in a time when women were rarely even see as fully human. Jesus interacted with lepers and those seen as “unclean,” an action that in Jewish tradition could have prevented him from entering the temple or could have even exiled him from the community. Jesus defied unjust laws and challenged those of authority who blindly enforced them. Rather than teaching strict dogma, Jesus taught through relatable storytelling and his personal life example. Jesus peered into the hearts of others and saw them not for their brokenness, but saw them for their graced wholeness.

Sitting again beneath another gold-encrusted cathedral, I ask myself again, would Jesus want this? Did this devoted Jew ever plan on starting any of this?

In a time and place where Cathedrals have become museums, with chalices, patens, ciboriums, and monstrances meticulously organized not on alters but behind displays, I beg the question: What has the Church become?

Had we stayed with the outcasted people, like Christ did, would the Church be in better condition? 

Had we spent more time teaching through stories and personal examples, rather than instilling dogma, would we had grown the faith more broadly? 

Had we spent more time challenging the authority and the status-quo, rather than building and becoming the authority would our faith be more real and less ornate? 

Had we been more open to dialogue and table fellowship would less people have been killed in the name of Christ?

In looking at the lives of the Saints, these holy men and women seem to have done just those things—model their lives after Christ and not the Church. Mother Theresa spent her life devoted to poorest of the poor. Francis Assisi rejected his family’s money and spent his time in nature with lepers. Thérèse of Lisieux spent her short life devoted to prayer and meditation. Augustine rejected his material lifestyle and spent his life in dedication to his faith. Dorothy Day rejected the status quo of the Church and Government and opened her home and life to feeding and housing the poor. 

Gathered in a simple attic room with only basic candle light, I’m instantly reminded of the days of the ancient early church I have only read about in textbooks.

Men and women, who have spent the day painstakingly walking, gather in praise for the blessing of their arrival and humbled by the experiences that brought them to this place. In silence, we sing the prayers of our days. In song, we celebrate the rhythm of our life. There are no gold-encrusted statues. There are no marble carvings. There is only a simple bare space with humble people gathered, holding wrinkled papers pamphlets recycled from the previous nights.

Yet, it is in that space where my heart swells with emotion at the majesty of our human creation. Christ would surely surely and undoubtedly find himself at home here without any need to flip tables or question faith.

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