Italian Travel Log: In Awe of Beauty

COLUMN: A new look at the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Interior of the Duomo in Florence
Interior of the Duomo in Florence (photo: Mary Kate Knorr)

On a recent four-week trip to Italy, I indulged in the obvious Italian specialties (pizza, wine, gelato, etc.) and wandered in and out of churches I passed along the way.

I was making my way back from dinner one evening and saw a small chapel up ahead. I ducked in with plans to say a quick prayer. I was surprised, however, to find 10 or so Bridgettine sisters praying the Rosary aloud. I joined them (or tried to, as I speak no Italian) and found myself wondering about the call to this sisterhood. What was it about consecration that spoke to these women? What, in their discernment, possessed them to choose this vocation?

And as I listened to them pray in unison, clasping their rosaries, each facing the monstrance on the altar, I understood: These women knew Who they were looking at.

This lesson was further expressed to me in Florence as I toured the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral named in honor of St. Maria del Fiore. It is an absolutely remarkable structure, designed and built with a claim to the title of “largest church in the world” in mind.

Of course, this is no longer factually accurate, as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City has since been achieved. Nevertheless, it’s a sight to behold and a destination for millions of pilgrims annually. The church itself can hold up to 22,000 people, and the dome that sits on top was such a feat that it took decades for Florentines to find an architect whom they were confident could get it right. 

When you visit the Duomo, you’re ushered through a line that starts outside and weaves along the outer wall. Once you enter the main doors, the line continues along that same wall, past the main altar and down the center aisle. Most tour guides will point out the military paintings, speak somewhat vaguely to the significance of the The Last Judgment fresco on the inside of the dome, talk briefly about the importance of the subtle crack down the right half, and tell the story of how the youngest Medici brother was murdered in a pew while sitting with his family during Easter Mass. And when the tour’s over, you’ll be sent on your way through the opposing door, with restaurant recommendations and other suggested sites offered as a parting gift. 

But as Catholics, we’d be remiss to pass by the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. 

Sitting below the dome, in the shadow of the crucifix, is the tabernacle.

And the miraculous circumstances of the dome’s architecture pale in comparison.

Mass was being celebrated on a secondary altar in the far right corner of the church during my tour.

Our Lord Jesus Christ died on a cross. But before he died, he said, “This is my body” and “this is my blood,” instating the Eucharist so that we might meet him on altars across the globe, regardless of time and space.

And then, after his death, he rose — and the gates of heaven burst open so forcefully that Satan felt them down in hell.

So I wonder:

What if more people touring these churches in awe of their beauty knew the Beauty before them?

Mary Kate Knorr

writes from Illinois.