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Reflections of a church tourist



Churches are often tourist attractions. I once heard of an American waiting outside Winchester Cathedral, who said to his wife 'Okay, honey, you do the inside, and I'll do the outside.' As my source was the wife of a Methodist theologian, authenticity is assured. Some people make it their business to visit as many cathedrals as possible, so time must be of the essence.

Filipino-Australians celebrate Feast of Black Nazarene at St Mary Star of the Sea Church in West Melbourne. (Philtimes)I suppose I am a church tourist, too, and a mosque and synagogue tourist as well when I get the chance. Architecture is not my strong suit, for I have scant knowledge of the various styles, and the way in which very old buildings manage to stay standing is simply a mystery to me, but I admire the beauty of walls and ceilings, the decorations, and the idiosyncrasies such as little sculptures invisible to congregations and visitors, but made in faith that God could see them.

The history, the thought of generations of worshippers, the numerous associations: these are other things that fascinate. I like to remember facts like the one that Rembrandt's children were christened in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, and that the Emperor Justinian cried, 'Ho, Solomon! I have outdone thee,' when he first saw the mighty dome of his Aghia Sophia in Constantinople on its completion in 537.

But it is the atmosphere of peace that also attracts, along with a sense of calm and enduring faith. It is comforting to see a number of people sitting in the pews, deep in thought, prayer or meditation, while outside traffic roars and other people go about their daily business.

I certainly felt comforted when, during a recent visit to Melbourne, I went into St Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne, not far from the bustling Victoria Market. This church, I discovered later, is a listed building, and one of the largest places of worship in Australia, having a seating capacity of 1200. It also must be one of the most beautiful.

I'm not sure that one expects to be surprised in church, but I certainly was, because there at Star of the Sea I discovered an image I had never seen before: a statue called the Black Nazarene. Here is Christ, dressed in sumptuous gold-embroidered maroon robes trimmed with lace collar and cuffs, wearing a crown of thorns surmounted by a halo of three rays, and, hands outstretched, shouldering the cross.

And he is black. The practical explanation of the blackness is that the original image was carved from a Mexican dark-coloured wood in the 16th century, and then taken to the Philippines in 1606. But popular legend has it that a fire broke out on the transport galleon, so that it was charred. Whatever the case, the Black Nazarene is the most popular object of devotion in the Philippines, and is believed to be responsible for many miracles.


"It is comforting to see a number of people sitting in the pews, deep in thought, prayer or meditation, while outside traffic roars and other people go about their daily business."


In 1787, after residing temporarily in a series of churches, the original Black Nazarene found a permanent home in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in the Quiapo district of Manila. The day of the translation is commemorated in an annual procession on 9 January, for which the record attendance is 220,000 people, with the procession itself lasting for as long as 20 hours. A procession involving the Star of the Sea replica also takes place in Melbourne, on a smaller scale.

Part of the appeal of the image is that it shows Christ's passion and suffering. Those who look upon it can relate Christ's ordeal and example to the struggles in their own lives. And they are also given hope, because it is believed healing can be accomplished via touching the Nazarene.

Not raised a Catholic, I have often found the images of the Crucifixion disturbing in their depiction of extreme suffering. But I lingered near the Black Nazarene, struck by the strong suggestions of steadfastness, acceptance, and fortitude. I was comforted:  later I returned to the Church of St Mary, Star of the Sea.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Filipino-Australians celebrate Feast of Black Nazarene at St Mary Star of the Sea Church in West Melbourne. (Philtimes)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Black Nazarene, Philippines, Catholicism



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Existing comments

I have entered several empty none Catholic Churches during my life time and have always been struck by a sense of deadness, apart from one occasion, when in a small country chapel I was confront by a vase of freshly cut flowers on the altar, as I felt the living beauty of His creation/presence before me. I believe that the reason for this is that I am subconsciously looking for the red Sanctuary Light with its gentle living/active flame that is usually situated close to the Tabernacle. As it always provokes a feeling of recognition, in that I am not alone as a mutual presence is manifest/felt. Without the flame in the sanctuary lamp His presence is not known /felt, as it could be said, that if there was no consecrated Eucharist host within the tabernacle, the same sense of a mutual presence is manifest/felt and on the spiritual plane, it would be the real acceptance of God’s presence. As in the symbolic everlasting light, or eternal flame that shines before the altar of sanctuaries in many Jewish places of worship…“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life”…When the priest says the “Body of Christ” we say Amen a declaration of affirmation and for me He is present when devoured as we become living tabernacles, living been the operative word, without this affirmation in faith, would the bread of life give life to an unbeliever?.. Is it not the willing acceptance/consent of His living presence within the Eucharist that gives life to our spirit that wells up into eternal life, as the flesh profits not. It could be said that the bread and wine are the ordained means to “total change basic reality” to draw us into the spiritual constant reality before God of His Divine Presence (Eternal living sacrifice) now and always present before/within us, when we willingly say in faith Amen, as we partake of the living bread of life and transforming sacrificial cup of eternal salvation; kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 05 June 2019  

'Religious Architecture' almost sounds like the name of a subject in the Department of Fine Arts at our old alma mater, Gillian, but, as you say, it's only if those bones live that a place comes alive. There are real heralded and unheralded gems in this country and overseas which have really touched me. The Perth Mosque, built in a very North Indian style in the early 1900s, with exquisite calligraphy, is a discovery once you get inside the high whitewashed walls. It's a very alive place, as is St Peter's Eastern Hill in Melbourne, 'just across from the Catholic cathedral St Patrick's and far, far Higher Church', with its glorious altar, candlesticks and superb woodwork. What used to be called Solemn Pontifical High Mass under the late Geoffrey Taylor at 11.00 AM on Sundays was like an Anglican transportation of the Ambrosian Rite from Milan. The amount of incense used almost asphyxiated me. Glorious experience. The Great Synagogue in Sydney, with its ceiling painted to look like a starry Heaven, makes you look up both physically and spiritually. It is also very much still alive. Top marks for religious community would have to go to those South Indian pilgrimage towns like Mahabalipuram, with their superb temples and the sort of lifestyle around which our ancestors would've experienced when going to places like Canterbury.

Edward Fido | 05 June 2019  

Thank you for your insights on the the Black Nazarene, Gillian. The crucifix of San Damiano has a similar devotional significance in the Franciscan tradition, it being the icon before which the Order's founder was praying when he received Christ's call to re-build the Church: a fitting emblem, I'd suggest, for our times. This crucifix combines, through dexterous line and colour, motifs of both death and resurrection, ordeal and hope, in a way that is simultaneously challenging and consoling.

John RD | 06 June 2019  

Interesting you refer to the San Damiano Crucifix, painted in the iconic style, as an icon, John RD, because a Romanian Orthodox priest once explained an icon to a bewildered Methodist Englishman as 'a window into Heaven', which sums up the traditional purpose of icons beautifully. Most windows are transparent, so, in the case of Francis' conversion experience, you could say that he, as much as is humanly possible, tried to 'see' God and that God saw him and responded. This is the supreme, totally legitimate and thoroughly orthodox Western Christian mystical experience granted to a great saint who helped revivify the Church of his day. I think that the Western Church needs to rediscover its own deep, mystical tradition, which, in the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, has never been lost. Kevin Walters prose poem/reflection seems to me very much in this tradition.

Edward Fido | 07 June 2019  

Thank you Edward for your encouraging comment. Kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 11 June 2019  

You perfectly capture the fascination of the buildings and the sense of peace that is very much the ‘spirit of the place’. It is a worthwhile study for tourists and hopefully gives a sense of spirituality which is often lacking in the modern world.

Maggie | 12 June 2019  

I quite agree, Edward, that the Church in the West needs to rediscover its mystical tradition - together with its intellectual tradition, especially metaphysics and epistemology. The fact that St Thomas Aquinas, for instance, could combine profound philosophy and sublime mystical experience - evident in his hymns - is an inspiration for our times.

John RD | 13 June 2019  

Grand churches - cathedrals and basilicas - and smaller ones too - chapels as well - all of them express something of a shared cultural understanding - whether one was raised (as was I - a fundamentalist and plain interior Protestant) or in the more glorious icon and/or religious graven image and painted tradition. I read the King James 1611 Bible multiple times as a lad - there aren't too many themes I cannot pick in a stained glass window or a frescoed wall - Gerard Manley HOPKINS or Les MURRAY poetry speaks to my remembered youth. I am currently with my wife walking the northern Portugal section of the "caminho português" - churches and chapels, blessed shrines and festivals abound. In fact this very evening staying in Casa da Capela - a rather grand hostel built around a renovated chapel in the village of Pecene - just a day's easy walk to the Spanish border - from which others will walk on to Santiago de Compostela. Further south - from where we began this pilgrimage - in stunningly beautiful Porto (where intriguingly JK Rowling drew much of her fundamental inspiration for the Harry Potter series) - all the churches I entered were filled with images/carvings/statues of a dead and/or suffering Christ - not the Risen living Christ with which image in hymn and written word I was raised. Hmm?

Jim KABLE | 14 June 2019  

I think you might be one of the few ES readers who are really able to grasp the manifold talents of Aquinas, John RD. Theological education, even among clerics, is abysmal in this country. There are now very few seminaries that can produce the equal of the American Bishop Robert Barron, who is steeped in Western culture and religion. This is what we have lost here.

Edward Fido | 16 June 2019  

Always, when travelling or closer to home, my eye is attracted to a church building. Some churches seemingly have little architectural merit, while ancient churches (in Europe for instance) are breathtaking. I don't regard myself as a church 'tourist' when travelling. More of a visitor keen to gaze upon the beauty and atmosphere of a place of worship. It's been said to me many times 'the church is the people, not buildings'. Still, our homes be they ever so modest are living parts of our relationships. So it is with churches.

Pam | 17 June 2019  

More's the pity if that's the case, Edward. I'd say we were undergoing an attack of cultural amnesia were the phenomenon of aversion towards Western civilization in academia not deliberately engineered - ironically, by those who most benefit from it, as writers like Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Roger Scruton, and, more recently, Kevin Donnelly, have shown. Though some say the bird has flown, I'm more confident in the Owl of Minerva's resilience.

John RD | 17 June 2019  

Pam identifies what Philip Larkin's ironically agnostic and acclaimed poem, "Church Going", misses about churches: ". . . they are living parts of our relationships" - past, present, and future.

John RD | 17 June 2019  

Truly the architecture of churches , can be inspirational and I have been known to track down both the famous cathedrals of the world along with also simple local places of worship. A group of school friends meet up once a year in different country towns. We together make a point of going to a mass there.No matter the structure of the church building ,it's the warmth of welcome of the parishioners, the communication of the priest, the dignity and comfort of the Eucharist that "gets us" every time. And we have met so many fellow worshippers, some of whom have invited us to lunch , caught up with us when they have been in the city, recommended places of interest in their town. Gillian , you have hit the nail on the head by mentioning the people at prayer. And Pam it certainly is the people in prayer who are the "church".

Celia | 20 June 2019  

I agree with you, John RD. From what I see Western Culture and Religion are making a comeback. Not in a stilted nor an aggressive way, but, having faced the many justified criticisms of them, moving forward and onward from there.

Edward Fido | 21 June 2019  

We recently visited the Great Stupa near Bendigo. This Budhist Temple is an amazing piece of architecture. In many ways it did feel very alien to me. Yet, as we walked around a sense of friendship, comfort and peace settled on me. The gardens surrounding the Stupa include areas that are dedicated to other religions. For example: The garden of St. Francis of Assisi. The Great Cathedrals in Europe provoke that amazing sense of awe due to their breathtaking beauty but clearly skilled architects and artists can still provide wonderful environments for meditation, reflection and prayer on a smaller scale. There are many good examples around Victoria and not just in the Christian religion.

Stephen Hicks | 22 June 2019  

I had no idea of the existence of the Black Nazarene so close by. Thanks for enlightening me.

Juliet Flesch | 24 June 2019  

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