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Attending church abroad: More museum than mass

The gray and blue stone shoots out over the tops of the uniform orange shingles of Bruges' buildings. Equally beautiful, yet somehow out of place, St. Salvator's Cathedral towers over the carefully crafted, old-timey Bruges like a grandfather sitting next to a 20-year-old with full makeup, striving to look old enough to get into a bar. The authenticity sometimes missing in the tourist packed streets oozes off of the cathedral.

There is no doubt in my mind that this place has been a place of worship since the 10th century. You can feel its quiet respect in the air as you walk through the red wood doors.

The interior is big, but not cavernous like some of the other churches in the area. It's quainter, eliciting more of a homey than intimidating feeling. It's smaller and emptier than the Church of Our Lady, across town. It does have one thing I've yet to see in a cathedral, though.


A priest, dressed in purple vestments in accordance with the Lenten season, is flanked by two white-clad deacons. They wait at the end of the aisle leading to the altar. The congregation sits quietly, facing forward, waiting for the music to start and signal the beginning of the service.

I almost don't notice them when I enter; the rack of postcards and souvenirs blocks the sight of the priest from the door. Tourists mill around the outside, snapping pictures and talking, their voices echoing through the hall. I wrote off the people in chairs as tired or lazy tourists who sat down for a moment.

Almost unconsciously, I walk to a nondescript corner behind the priests, put the lens cap over my camera and fold my hands. My Catholic upbringing instinctually jerks me out of tourist mode, though I haven't been to Mass in months.

No one else seems to notice the ceremony, though.

Everyone is wandering, talking, taking pictures, touching columns and pawing through overpriced souvenirs. But why wouldn't they? The place is a museum. All the cathedrals are. They're full of old art and culture and rarely contain a priest --at least, not one in the main hall.

You go for the stained glass and sculptures of the Madonna, the magnificent altar pieces and triptychs. You don't go for religion.

You go for the art and that odd whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling that is loosely religious, because Jonah was eaten by a whale in the Old Testament. If the cathedral is really impressive, you can see inside for the low price of 10 euro.

Now, with the sounds of the hanging organ bellowing through the room, you can't hear the tourists but you can see their mouths continue to move. They barely look up at the noise. Some gather in the back to watch the procession, whispering to each other like they're commenting on a play.

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I stand in the corner as my friends creep towards the door, ready to leave after only a few minutes. Two of the girls are practicing Catholics, I know, and I can see the discomfort of the whole situation written on their faces.

I cross the hall, trying to make my footsteps silent on the marble, and join them on their way out.

Even before we reach the stream of tourists, the resonating sounds of the organ hymn are drowned out and forgotten as we join the fray and start the walk to our boat tour.