The conundrum of Christian cathedrals

Canterbury Cathedral in England is one of the few in-tact cathedrals left in the country from the Middle Ages.
Canterbury Cathedral in England is one of the few in-tact cathedrals left in the country from the Middle Ages.

Perhaps it’s because I’m Catholic. Perhaps it’s because my family has traveled with priests before. Perhaps it’s because I tend to visit Christian-dominated countries. But somehow, I’ve managed to visit a lot of churches during my 20 (and a half)  years of life.

Places of worship, like people, come in all shapes, sizes and denominations. I’ve been fortunate to visit many cathedrals and parishes, a couple mosques and a synagogue or two in my travels.

I won’t pretend to be a religious studies expert. I know Christian churches best. I’ve seen too many around the world to count the exact number, but they all have some common themes I’ve never really reflected upon until now.

For some odd reason, I really enjoy architecture of churches, especially the old Gothic cathedrals. During a trip to Canterbury this past weekend, I realized how similar Gothic cathedrals can be.

To start, my sophomore labyrinth seminar at Marquette taught me Gothic cathedrals all have the same shape (a Christian cross), all incorporate the “flying buttresses” as beams, and are generally as ornate as possible to celebrate the Church’s wealth. Most were built around the Middle Ages, but were popular up until the late 19th century (see when Gesu was built if you don’t believe me).

Apart from these factual similarities, I always have a problem visiting churches as a tourist.

Churches aren’t meant for tourists.

Tourists, obviously, have taken over the Western world’s most-famous churches. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London requires an admission fee just to set foot inside. Notre Dame requests donations for walking around, and the metal detectors outside of St. Peter’s Basilica are more reminiscent of an airport than my local parish.

And yet, any time I step inside one of these Christian behemoths, I can’t help but feel awkward snapping photos and wandering about the aisles with little regard to the tombs below or crucifix overhead. We’ve become so awed by the buildings themselves that we’ve almost abandoned their original purpose: religious worship.

Of course, worship still takes place in all famous, tourist-ridden churches. But as a tourist, I can’t help but see the contradiction of commercializing our places of worship like any old museum or palace. After awhile, even the most amazing cathedrals begin to run together in one long, Christian montage of stone and stained glass, so why do we keep visiting them?

I don’t have a good answer for that question. Instead, I will leave you, dear reader, with my own tour of  Canterbury Cathedral. Perhaps you can find something I missed.


(If you want to see more from my trip to Canterbury, visit for photos and commentary!)