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Ten Catholic Places to See Before You Die

We are a pilgrim people, and we long to experience the world in all its glorious variety before we pass into the next. So a popular book suggests a thousand places to see before you die. As Catholics, we also can use our travels to discover and enjoy the richness of our faith and its history.

Which ten top Catholic places would be on your must-see list? It has given me quiet pleasure going through mine. But I’m going to make some caveats first.

Let’s assume that the Holy Land is a must. So if you don’t object, I’m not going to include it in the list—its status is obvious. So also is Rome—the eternal city—the experience of standing with St. Peter’s successor in St. Peter’s Square at the heart of the Church is indescribably marvelous. I’m also excluding the three great Marian shrines: Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe—everyone immediately thinks of them as “Catholic places”: no need to include them on any list.

I’m torn, too, by certain doubts: What, after all, is a “Catholic place”? Surely some of the most important places in our Christian history have been places of terrible suffering: the Tower of London, the gulags, the concentration camps. These are the places where heroes suffered and died, where martyrs’ blood was shed. So I have chosen sites of martyrdom and of hardship, as well as places of pure beauty and happy achievement.

And there are places where missionaries worked—and work today—with heroic zeal, but which must not be visited purely as a spectator: the homes run by Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta and elsewhere, the island of Molokai where Bl. Fr. Damien gave his life for those suffering from leprosy.

In choosing, therefore, the places where one might go, I do not deliberately neglect a central message of our faith: that it is among the persecuted and the poor and the tortured and lonely that Christ is to be found.

Finally, I’ve deliberately chosen places that I, or members of my immediate family, have genuinely visited, some of which are a little whimsical, and slightly off-the-beaten-track. Please allow, therefore, for the reality of geography: Born and brought up in Britain, I have spent most of my life there or on the mainland of Europe.

So, with all that preamble, come with me on my journey to the Top Ten Catholic Places.

Chartres Cathedral, France

You see it long before you get near—two spires, pointing heavenward across the fields. For quite a long while, you can’t see anything else of Chartres, although it is a busy town with all the usual spread of streets and shops and cars and buildings. But all you can see, for a good while as you drive, and for hours and hours if you are approaching on foot, is the two tall triangles, sticking up beyond the cornfields.

Chartres is magnificent. Its origins pre-date Christianity: It is said that here on this site, the Druids built a shrine to the “unknown virgin who would give birth to the Divine.” Chartres is a miracle of mathematical and architectural genius. It is evidence in stone that our medieval ancestors knew more—a lot more—about precise measurements, about principles of balance and engineering, about angles and intersecting lines, than the modern age is prepared to recognize. We could not build Chartres Cathedral today. We have lost the skills, and probably the patience, to acquire them.

There are many mysteries about Chartres. For example, the glorious rose window set high up between the great towers exactly mirrors the circular maze on the floor. The dimensions of the Cathedral itself have a human shape—the relation of the sanctuary to the nave is that of the human head to a body.

Chartres is famous for, among many things, its quite fabulous blue glass, made in a unique way and with a specific and glorious deep color through which the light glows. The interior of the Cathedral is kept dark, not flooded with electric light, in order that the sunlight outside can combine with the skills of the glassmakers to let the radiance glow. Blue is the color now associated worldwide with the Virgin Mary.

Salzburg, Austria

The city of Mozart, of churches, of mountains: If Chartres is where we sense something of Europe’s Christian roots, emerging out of a pagan past, then Salzburg is where there is Christian culture at every turn. Mozart was not just a random genius: He was born into a specific culture and was fed by it, so that the extraordinary talents given by the Almighty emerged in a time and place where musical genius could flourish.

Visit the beautiful Cathedral with its great lantern-like ceiling that gives a feeling of space and freedom. The baroque interior seems clean and new—that’s because it was all rebuilt following wartime bombing. We are looking at a baroque church as it is meant to be—bright and fresh, not with the dust of years.

You can visit the convent made famous by Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music (though you might avoid some of the film-themed tours, souvenirs, etc. that are found in the town). Enjoy the glorious sense of space engendered by the presence of the mountains—first the green foothills which are within reach and the great snowy peaks that put you in touch with God. Drink coffee topped with thick cream while church bells roll. Above all, listen to the music—choices of different sung Masses every Sunday with Mozart and Monteverdi and plainchant and more.

Krakow and Czestochowa, Poland

Start in the main square, and visit the church where, daily, a trumpeter sounds the call which once rallied the townsfolk to warn of danger—he still stops at the exact note where his long-ago predecessor was struck by an arrow from an invading army. Go from there to the breathtaking Wawel castle and cathedral. While you are awed by the golden beauty of the latter, ponder for a moment that this is not only the resting-place of Poland’s kings and the repository of the Polish nation’s history, but the place where Pope John Paul II was ordained. This place is redolent of a glorious faith which twentieth-century ideologies, Nazi and Communist, tried to consign to history. The faith that is celebrated here in a triumph of magnificent golden artwork is something alive, triumphing over the horrors of war, invasion, and state-imposed atheism. Pray, gulp, ponder, and give thanks.

Enjoy Krakow’s other churches and choose from among its pleasant cafés and restaurants. Then travel on to Czestochowa, the shrine of Jasna Gora, the Bright Mountain, where Mary has been venerated for centuries. The serene face of the Virgin on this sacred icon looks out with untroubled gaze, solemn and absorbent, taking in the message entrusted to her. This is a woman who knew—and knows—about human sorrow, and also about the redemption won for us all by the death and resurrection of her Son.

Go to confession in one of the innumerable places where this is available. Take your turn at waiting for a chance to view the icon at the heart of the shrine, but visit various chapels, too, and see the many gifts left there by pilgrims over the years. Take your sorrows to the Virgin: She understands. This is a corner of Europe that knows its history. Auschwitz is only a short distance away.

Glastonbury, England

I hesitated before including this one. Glastonbury at present is famous for black magic and for shops selling all sorts of pagan rubbish: crystals, books of spells, nasty stuff. As a result, the place has a horrible feel to it and attracts people who enjoy its grimmer offerings. But this can and must change. Glastonbury has been defiled before. And every Christian who visits there can make his own specific contribution, through prayer and pilgrimage, in restoring this place to what it ought to be.

For well over a thousand years, Glastonbury was regarded as one of the most holy places in Christendom. It is the legendary Avalon, linked to King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea landed here with a small band of Christians, fleeing the Roman authorities. The story is that Joseph planted his staff in the soil and it sprouted, creating the famous Glastonbury Thorn. Some versions of the story add that Joseph brought with him the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail.

Whatever the truth of the legend, a great abbey grew up at Glastonbury. St. Patrick is said to have come here, and St. Dunstan. In the ruins of the abbey you will see the place where, it is said, Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, are buried (South Cadbury Hill, alleged site of Camelot, is not far away).

Above the town rises Glastonbury Tor, a mysterious hill, quite unlike anything else in this flat landscape. When the tyrant king, Henry VIII, destroyed all England’s abbeys and monasteries, the Abbot of Glastonbury was taken, dragged up this hill, and hideously executed: Bl. Richard Whiting, canonized in 1970, venerated today as one of the heroic Forty English Martyrs. Townsfolk of the time saw in his death—high on a hill after torture and an unjust trial—an echo of Christ’s own.

For nearly four hundred years, Glastonbury’s traditions were covered by silence. When Catholics were once again given their freedom, a church dedicated to Our Lady of Glastonbury was built, and today is a shrine where many come to pray. Join them, and visit the abbey ruins, the Chalice Well—where some say the Holy Grail is buried, which is why in the hardest drought the water has never run dry—and walk up the Tor, praying the rosary as you go. At the top, gaze over the beautiful view, and pray to St. Michael, to whom the ruined chapel there is dedicated.

Before you go, visit the Glastonbury Thorn—it is a mysterious tree, of a type known in the Holy Land. It blooms each year around Christmastime, and a sprig is traditionally plucked and sent to Queen Elizabeth.

St. Declan’s Well, Ardmore, County Waterford, Ireland

The town is Ardmore, meaning a “high hill,” and St. Declan is said to have come here in the fifth century. He was a holy monk who had been on a pilgrimage to Rome. Returning to Ireland from Britain, he realized while at sea that he had left behind his bell, a precious object and necessary for Mass. He prayed, and the bell was miraculously washed across the sea to join him. On the place where it landed, a chapel was built.

St. Declan’s Well is set near the cliffs overlooking the grey sea. The air is gloriously fresh. The sea pounds away on the rocks beneath and you feel you are on the edge of the world. Here is the old tradition of a remote place where a hermit would live, pray, eat little, sleep little, and be in communion with God. Here, a fresh spring gives fresh clear water and you can bathe your eyes and your hands and feet, and ask for God’s blessing of good health. Here you can see the remains of a twelfth-century church, and know that people have been following these same actions—bathing, praying, gazing at the sea, being in God’s presence—for centuries.

Ireland has many, many holy wells. Some are well-known and much-visited, others have just local popularity. They are associated with saints and legends, with the same tradition that gives us a holy water stoop in every Catholic church and the gift of healing water from Lourdes. Centuries of faith make the idea of a holy well seem natural: I was taken to one in a wood. A large, well-built circle of brickwork surrounded it, and we knelt to bathe our faces and enjoy the cool and tingling water. The local Catholic parishes had a joint celebration that summer in which water from all the local wells was brought and blessed.

At St. Declan’s Well, you are in the tradition of all those hermits of long ago whose lives seem to us crazy in their harshness and their remoteness, their lack of physical comfort and their abandonment to God’s purposes.

The Pope’s Bavaria

Not just because Papa Benedict has said his heart “beats Bavarian,” and not just because of the delicious local sausages and cakes, and not just because it is a corner of Europe that hasn’t lost its identity—Bavaria also has some of the most wonderfully joyful churches I have ever seen, a great Marian shrine at Altotting, and a sense of the faith having been truly “inculturated” that is a delight all round. Visit some of those churches—including the one in Marktl dedicated to St. Oswald (an English king!) where the young Joseph Ratzinger was baptized, and another in Traunstein, dedicated to the same saint, where he later celebrated his first Mass. At Altotting, see the much-venerated statue of Mary, darkened by time and surrounded by thank-offerings. Enjoy the vastness and sense of space and light in some of the frankly over-the-top baroque churches—which, it is said, owe their massively decorated style to having been rebuilt following widespread destruction in the Thirty Years’ War.

Ponder, too, the sacrifices made by devout Catholics in World War II. At Dachau, just outside Munich, several hundred priests were imprisoned, and many died. Among those now formally honoured by the Church is young Karl Leisner, secretly ordained at this concentration camp and a patron in heaven for modern seminarians and those training as priests.

Compostela, Spain

Not just the place, but the journey to get there. To visit Compostela properly, you have to walk. This is the ancient shrine of St. James, built on what was then the edge of the known world. In medieval times this became a great center of pilgrimage, and it is so still—indeed its popularity has been hugely revived in recent time. A great World Youth Day was held here in the 1990s.

There are routes to Compostela from across Europe, and many still walk the entire way, taking weeks to do so and staying at some of the old pilgrim hostels on the way. Information obtained from the pilgrim bureau in Compostela will tell you of the special “passport” that you can obtain, getting a stamp at churches or other places as you walk: If you can prove in this way that you have walked the whole route, you can claim a free meal on arrival at Compostela.

The church is vast, ornate, magnificent. Pilgrims traditionally climb up to give a hug to the ancient statue of St. James. If you are there for a Mass on a major feast day, you will see the famous, giant incense-burner which is swung from the ceiling and could kill anyone who happened to stand in its way: Tradition says it was used partly to fumigate the place when it was full of smelly pilgrims!

At Compostela, people pray and celebrate their Catholic faith, meet fellow pilgrims, and enjoy discovering the history of this extraordinary place. From here, too, you can visit Avila, home of the great St. Teresa, and indeed as you turn inland, there is all of Spain before you—a land rich in Catholic tradition and history. Enjoy.

Lindisfarne, England

You need to go at low tide—and check the times of the tides before starting to return. Lindisfarne is an island, and you can walk to it from the coast of England when the tide recedes. Here, long ago, before the Norman Conquest, holy monks lived and prayed. They created the famous Lindisfarne Gospels—with the most exquisite lettering and decorative devices—that still make us .asp at the beauty and intricacy of the work as we view it more than a thousand years later.

Lindisfarne is called “holy island” by the locals. A monastery was established here in the seventh century. St. Aidan was consecrated bishop and lived at Lindisfarne, making journeys on foot from this island across Northumbria.

St. Cuthbert lived even further out to sea, on Farne Island with which communication could be established by flashing lights. It is said that his food was just a little wheat that he managed to grow in the crevices of the rocks.

Today on Lindisfarne you can walk in the ruins of the monastery, gaze out towards Farne, listen to the pounding of the sea, and think about the men who lived here and achieved such great things: From here, the evangelization of the northern part of England was carried out. Cuthbert became a great and holy bishop, preaching, teaching, exhorting, healing, living in simplicity, and working hard. He was loved by his flock, and is said once to have healed a woman’s sick baby with a kiss.

When Cuthbert died, he was buried on Lindisfarne and his relics were treated with great veneration. One night, as Viking raiders approached, the monks knew they had to flee—they took the precious relics as they ran across the tidal shore to the mainland. Today, Cuthbert’s remains lie in the great tomb that was made for him at Durham.

For those who get caught by the tide walking back across the sands, great poles have been placed, where you can scramble up and sit in safety in a sort of cage at the top, waiting for the tide to recede (but be warned: It’s a long wait, and a cold one).

A visitor to Lindisfarne should also go to Durham. Pray in the silence beneath those great Norman arches, visit Cuthbert’s tomb and that of St. Bede, the historian, to whom we are indebted for so much of what we know—and what I have written here—of English Christian history.

Assisi, Italy

It is overcrowded and filled with tourists in the summer months. It’s sometimes hard to find the spirit of the “little poor man” in these busy streets. But it’s worth it—the frescoes in the great church, lovingly restored after massive damage by an earthquake a few years ago, tell the story of St. Francis, his conversion to a life of prayer, his renunciation of wealth, his rebuilding of the church at San Damiano, his trudge with his friars to Rome for permission from the Holy Father to found this new order. And people from all over the world come here to see, think, and almost certainly to learn something of value and to take it away with them. Down beneath the main town, you can see the little church that he rebuilt (now encased, as it were, in a large basilica, but still small and humble and cool and inviting as you potter inside, having enjoyed the surrounding great church too). At Assisi, you can also visit St. Clare’s convent and associated small museum display. You can wander around the cobbled streets—be warned, it’s very steep and hilly, and extremely hot in summer, so it’s not without its Franciscan penitential element. But it’s also joyful—the souvenir shops will sell you little models of St. Francis, and mugs and towels and clocks and tablecloths and goodness knows what else, all showing monks with cheery faces or pictures of the saint preaching to the birds. The local ice cream is probably the best you will ever eat. Oh, and San Damiano is a living, thriving place of prayer where pilgrims go to confession and to Mass.

From this place, the Franciscan message went out across Europe and the world, a message still being lived and still renewing the Church.

Montserrat, Spain

High up, terribly, terribly high up—I closed my eyes a few times as the car wove its way slowly up the mountain road. We had come from Barcelona—it’s about an hour and a half’s drive from the city—leaving behind the noise and the discos and the restaurants and the football crowds. But we were not heading away from humanity, because Montserrat, though high in the hills, is hugely popular. It’s a place for weddings—”If you want to marry your bride, take her to Montserrat,” the locals say—and it’s a place for pilgrims, for tourists, for holiday-makers who want to see a bit more than just beach and bistro, and for all who love history and want to discover old traditions.

The story starts in the ninth century, when some young shepherd children heard angelic voices, singing glorious music, and saw great shafts of light pouring down from heaven to earth. They ran to tell their parents who, though skeptical at first, followed their children and experienced with them a series of awesome visions from heaven. The visions continued for a month and attracted huge attention—the local priest followed the families to find out what was happening, and found a mysterious statue of Mary in a cave. The cave became a church, and the Virgin has been venerated here ever since. A Benedictine monastery was subsequently built at Montserrat and there has been an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage and prayer at this mountain shrine for over a thousand years.

The tradition of glorious music continues at Montserrat, where a famous boys’ choir sings daily in the basilica, inspiring everyone with Gregorian chant.

There are also stunning views across Catalonia, as well as spectacular rock formations and a sense of timelessness and space.

And Yours?

These are my places. Of course there could be more. I thought of the great ruined cathedral at St. Andrews on the coast of Scotland, the glorious cathedral at Wells in Somerset in England, St. Joan of Arc’s statue at Rheims in France, the spire of Cologne on the banks of the Rhine. And what of the Orthodox Christian world, of Greece and Russia? I remembered a packed church in Novgorod, shortly after the fall of Communism, or the church in St. Petersburg so newly returned to Christian worship after years as a “museum of atheism.” And then there is the whole of the Americas, which I have left untouched in this feature. And St. Thomas’ shrine in India, and the places associated with Francis Xavier there. I’ve barely made the first tentative scratches of a heritage so rich that a discussion on this could go on indefinitely. What would be your top ten places that a Catholic should try not to leave unvisited?

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