By Nathaniel Richards
Satan and his minions are working overtime right now. As I type these words, Marxist-fueled forces are doing their best to assault the reputation of Catholic saints in the United States of America by erasing their memory from the culture by violence. Historical revisionism via anarchy, really. As of July 2020, the writing of this article, they have been successful in felling statues of St. Junípero Serra in California. An outrage and a sacrilege to be sure. There is a movement that is hitting closer to home for me, however, as I am a Missourian. The “woke” are wanting to rename St. Louis, Missouri—which was named after French king Louis IX—and take down his statue by the art museum in Forest Park. When this piece is published, I hope Divine Providence shall keep King Louis on his horse in the park, as it is his right as the patron saint of that city to be there. While I would hope tensions would calm and deescalate, I believe that we may be past that. Lines are being drawn and if we are to be truly Catholic—we must stand with the Lord—even it would mean persecution or death. We are to be crusaders for Christ, as Louis IX was.
St. Louis, Missouri has a special place in my heart because my personal encounter with that city has helped me in my conversion to the Faith. All I can do in my efforts here is to offer three vignettes of my encounter with the Faith in that city and then try to reflect upon what to make of what is currently transpiring in the headlines and in our streets. So, if you will indulge me, the next three episodes are my brush with Catholicism in St. Louis.
I was not Catholic yet. I was preparing to be a senior in high school. Early August I was going on a family vacation to the Cancun area in Mexico. I was reading my way into a Trinitarian worldview, had some curiosity about the Church, but could not convert/inquire as I was living at that time with my dad who was a Oneness Pentecostal minister. I was still figuring things out. My Pentecostal mother who had civilly divorced my father was the one with whom I was going on vacation to Mexico. St. Louis was the airport city we stayed the night in. I had talked her into letting me visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis before we flew out the next day.
I will never forget the awe I felt. I am sure people have gushed about cathedrals and architecture in a much more articulate way before and I don’t want to rehash clichés. All I can say was that my head was gaping up at the ceiling, drinking in the beautiful mosaics and symbols of the faith. Then and now, I had a silent conviction about such things: whatever built this place is True.
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to get legalistic and shallowly pious about the matter, one could say, “Oh, the Faith isn’t in a building. Jesus is everywhere! He’s just as much in the cathedral as much as He is in the woods!”
But really. In my seventeen-year-old mind, I wanted to know why I had never been exposed to such Beauty. Church buildings in my nascent religious tradition were a means to an end, a place where a stage was set up and a worship music concert and preaching could take place. They might have a steeple, but maybe not. What they were not was an obvious Temple to God like the Basilica was. Like walking into that building, seeing the mosaics of the various saints floating above you—you knew that Heaven was real and that people went there. You had a sense that the building was built for Someone and that Someone dwelt there.
At the Marian chapel at the Basilica, I lit a votive candle for the first time in my life. My silent petition to Our Lady was to make me a Catholic. I knew in my heart of hearts that it would still be quite a journey yet, but I wanted to be a part of something that was much bigger than I ever was. I wanted to be a part of the great Tradition of the Faith. I wanted to join that Cloud of Witnesses. I wanted to be a part of whatever built this thing. I didn’t really know who St. Louis IX fully was at the time, but I knew one thing. The Faith he espoused was True. His Church was likely the True Church.
Later on in Mexico, I saw Louis IX’s Faith on a smaller scale. There was a small chapel in the tourist town of Playa del Carmen that was open amidst all the vendors selling souvenirs. I walked in and saw an exposed monstrance on the altar. A lady was mopping the narthex area and drying the floor with an electric fan. I stayed at the back near the holy water fonts. Seeing the Eucharistic Lord, a thought liken unto “My Lord and my God!” came to me. I was in just as much awe as I was in the Basilica. I felt awkward because I wasn’t sure what to do. A humble mustached Mexican fellow dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots and a hat walked in. He took off his hat, and immediately fell to the floor in a genuflection, lingering a moment. Like it was the most natural thing to do in the world. He looked at me looking at him, then proceeded further in the chapel to pray. I didn’t know that Mexican man and will never know him this side of Paradise, but I knew one thing. I wanted to be like him one day and likewise genuflect with as much reverence. The Faith that he espoused was True. His Church was the True Church.
I finally did it. I made my way into RCIA. The catechists were nice enough, but one didn’t know what monasticism was. I had told them that monasticism was one of the things that attracted me about Catholicism. I was shocked that Catholics who were supposed to help other Catholics join the church didn’t know something I thought was unique to the Faith. I was scandalized and opted to be baptized in a low church Anglican tradition in November 2013 instead, flaking out of pursuing further catechesis. But I met some Catholic coworkers in that interim who steered me aright and who prayed the rosary with me and one of them offered to go to mass with me. I gave it another go in 2014. Things in the second round in RCIA were still rough—I had to defend the existence of hell against my catechist and was truly shaken by it—but I was bound and determined to be received into the Church on Easter Vigil.
I returned to the Basilica in March shortly before I was received in 2015. I also went to the St. Louis Zoo at the time on that trip, but my main purpose was to return to the Marian chapel and thank Our Lady for the graces to actually come into the Church, despite all odds.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was really getting myself into, but I knew one thing. The Faith that venerated Mary as the Mother of God and espoused Marian dogmas was True. This Church was the True Church.
In October of 2018 I found myself a newlywed with a pregnant wife. We had dropped by the city of St. Louis the king to take in the Basilica, eat some Italian food at The Hill, and take it easy. In truth, it was a pilgrimage just as much as it was a staycation of sorts.
Seeing the Basilica this time meant more, I think. We had a kindly old gentleman notice us in the narthex and he proceeded to give us a tour—starting with the mosaics of Louis IX’s life and then all around the Basilica. It helped to hear the lives of the saints who had shaped St. Louis and Catholicism and America, and not just be starstruck. To know what each part of the grand temple was and be given a general sketch was nice. We prayed and lingered there a while even after the tour. Especially in the Blessed Sacrament chapel on the Epistle side of the altar.
On another occasion, we had happened in Forest Park to visit the history museum. We went through it, but still wanted something to do. Luckily, the art museum wasn’t too far away. We went through and relished the Catholic medieval and Renaissance art that was in the collection. We went out a different entrance than we had went in. And who should greet us but St. Louis himself?
I remember being impressed with the king on his horse. I took an obligatory photo, but I also appreciated that this man was a Catholic and saint, and though I was no Francophile, he was a brother and ancestor in my Faith. In a way, this statue represented all that was right with St. Louis, MO and the man himself. And also in a way, what was right about Catholicism itself. Though not every saint in Heaven had been a king on earth, our Faith is a regal thing. Each of us is to earn a crown, even if we don’t always have one in our temporal life. I’m sure Louis IX would be the first to say that his crown was in service to the Lord, and he likely cast his crown at the feet of Jesus when he met Him in the hereafter. However, it was just nice to know that here King Louis was, silently guarding the city outside the art museum at the park, peace suggested by his downturned sword held in his hand—invoking the power of the Holy Cross. I had no idea that a little less than two years later people would want to tear down this statue and write obscenities on it.
There was one more thing about this trip to St. Louis that I feel I must mention. It particularly bothered me at the time. In St. Louis there are two basilicas, the old and new one. The new one is very pretty and is mosaiced all over, the old one has a nobility about it but is older—it sits right next to the Gateway Arch. We visited both. In both, there are museums underneath that one can visit. Both have articles on display of pre-Paul VI Catholicism—namely, fiddleback vestments or paten plates and the like…things that aren’t typically used for a Novus Ordo liturgy on a regular basis. While the articles were beautiful, it seemed to me not quite right that these things were contained behind glass like they were consigned to history…never to be used again.
Furthermore, in the older basilica, the pamphlet you get after getting your museum admission had a quip of the church being a place welcoming and for people all faiths. That truly was a blow to me…is the Catholic Church a place for people of all faiths? Certainly anyone of whatever religion is welcome to visit our churches, but do we want them to stay the same after they leave? Should we not want them to convert to what is the One True Faith? Should we not present the Faith as a living thing? Are we just one religion among many? Are we content to keep our pretty basilicas as quaint museums that are no doubt beautiful but things that seem only capable of being built by a previous generation of Catholics and not by us?
Indeed, in the older basilica, I felt that I was perhaps less starstruck, because in my heart I saw the cognitive dissonance involved in wanting to hearken back to Tradition but insist on post-conciliar practices. The floor was creaky and wooden—it was as if the building was groaning in response to all the changes that had occurred. There were statues of saints and vigil lights, which were a welcome sight, as well as a traditional confessional…even the altars at the front had beautiful paintings above them servings as altarpieces. But with the freestanding table altars of Pauline liturgy being the focal point of the new mass, how often were masses said on the side altars…did any cleric do ad orientem liturgy? Granted features like these were present in the newer basilica too…but for some reason these things hit me in my visit in the older basilica, because it was well…old. You wondered as you walked across the noisy floorboards if Catholics of even the early twentieth century would care for all the “progress” that had been made. Please do not think my wonderings disparaging, but I feel that the post-conciliar reality is something to be reckoned with. Would those Catholics, who were likely catechized that the Catholic Church was the One True Church—would they welcome pamphlets in a museum indicating the wish that the church was for people of all faiths? If I may be so bold, I think not. And while I am thankful that the post-conciliar iconoclasm hasn’t totally claimed both basilicas in St. Louis, there was still enough evolution present for me to start thinking of these types of issues.
Truly, this trip to St. Louis both confirmed me in the Catholic Faith as well as challenged my Faith and asked me—what do you really believe? I was thankful for the pilgrimage, but it showed me that we must never take our Holy Faith for granted. It musn’t just be a pretty bauble or an esteemed cultural heirloom or historical landmark. We must teach the Faith to others and want for them to join it. We must ask them, what built this place? What Beauty, what True God led these people to build temples for God? Even when they don’t know completely of the Eucharistic Lord, can we present the Faith in such a way where, like Jacob who saw angels ascending and descending at Bethel, they might say later, Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not (Gen. xxviii. 16).
I think such was my encounter with St. Louis in general. My journey to Faith was long and filled with obstacles, but every pilgrimage was in a way my personal Jacob’s Ladder. I saw ostensible beauty and wanted to know why and what it truly was about. For in seeing these beautiful veils, I still knew that I was looking through a glass in a dark manner (I Cor. xiii. 12), and needed to see and know the God these angels of architecture and art proclaimed. I needed to serve Him the way He wants and decrees. And indeed, by rooting myself in the Traditional Faith via right doctrine, orthodoxy ensures that by Grace, I will see the God that St. Louis IX and St. Louis, MO proclaims. For this Faith of and in St. Louis is True. The Church that built them both is the True Church.
What to Do Now?
Admittedly, this piece has taken me some time to write. I saw the goings on in St. Louis, MO and had a burden on my heart. But I didn’t know what to do. I knew how the city had affected me, but I didn’t just want to be a reactive talking head of outrage at the Marxist forces. I love St. Louis IX, but not because I know every jot and tittle about him and I didn’t just want to write a piece defending his record—which by now I think is solid—because I’m not much of a historian, though I love reading about history. I didn’t want to disqualify myself, as it were. I’m a just a normal Catholic trying to live his faith, raise a family, and get his wife and kids to Heaven. But both the city and saint St. Louis helped make me a Catholic. And I honestly believe that’s something worth fighting for.
How do I fight? Chiefly, by prayer. I cannot drive to St. Louis every weekend to pray and protest with the locals, but I can join them wherever I am and pray alongside them. Furthermore, I can remember them when the Holy Mass is being said—and I have. You should too. We are One Body in Christ, let’s start communicating in prayer so that the Head of the Body, Our Lord, may intervene and save us from the diabolical chaos threatening our Faith. Pick up your rosaries…let us go to Our Lord through His Mother, and being childlike, obtain our requests in simple confidence.
Secondly, the second best way to fight is to share the Faith with others. Especially non-Catholics. Let your reason for believing be apparent in everything you do. Cross yourself when you eat during lunchbreak, carry around a rosary, talk about the Faith when others ask. Just be holy and unashamed…God will speak though you and do the rest. Avail yourself of Him in the Sacraments and truly live for Him and others will see that in you. This is important. For if you live for God and suffer persecution for it, that will be a witness. To whom? I’m not sure, but God knows. And He has use of both you and I…so we must be willing vessels. Our Faith has built beautiful cathedrals, but we must ourselves make our hearts a church. We must be Tabernacles that hold the Lord Jesus. Our lives must be a monstrance to others. That is how we avoid becoming a Faith of cultural heirlooms and museums.
Further in this vein, I am reminded of a homily given by a good priest friend of mine some years ago. He mentioned that in the cathedrals across the world you see two different types of people: folks that have cameras around their necks and are tourists, and then folks who are praying in these beautiful places and are pilgrims. His challenge to us was to ask this simple question: What type of Catholic are you? Are you a tourist or a pilgrim? Do you take pictures and then leave, never to really grace the doors of a church again? Or are you a pilgrim—knowing that this world is not your home and only in Jesus Christ and in Heaven do you have a lasting home. Do you live as Citizen of Heaven here and now? Or are you merely content to take it all in, document the grand architecture and live like a heathen elsewhere?
We Catholics are pilgrims in this life—heading to a grander country that no place on earth can rival. We have a King we are intent on seeing, whom even Louis IX worships. Jesus Christ is the end of all our toil here in our mortal lives. We must give witness to Him…for only in Jesus Christ and His Church is salvation found. We must not do others a disservice by being content to be tourists. We must be pilgrims.
I am encouraged to see that Catholics in St. Louis, MO and elsewhere are rising up to the challenge given the Marxist uprisings this summer. Priests have flocked to the St. Louis statue in Forest Park and defended his reputation against the mob. People have prayed the rosary and processed there many times as well. I am sure they will continue to do so. I plan to make a trip there again soon enough so I might be able to do the same. But this time, I will truly go with a pilgrim’s mindset, not being a tourist. The statue and the city now mean more to me than they did in 2018. For in this summer of iconoclasm in 2020, I see that these things truly are a sort of icon. They are holy insomuch that they point people to Heaven and Jesus Christ. And that is why the mob wants to destroy them erase them from history.
But we Catholics serve the Lord of History and Time. The mob can kill our bodies and efface our churches and statues. But they cannot kill our souls. For we are pilgrims journeying to a higher place. Heaven is our goal, not anything else. In this realization we know the True Faith, and like St. Louis IX, we may know that this persecution only shows that this is the True Church. Let us show our brethren outside the fold the fullness of the Faith and the Church. For the world hates us, but we do not hate their souls—only the sins they commit. Our temples must chiefly be our bodies and souls, for as the Psalmist says, Unless the Lord Build the house, they labour in vain that build it (Ps. cxxvi. 1).
With God’s Grace, we shall save souls, even in this valley of tears.
We shall endure in Christ, He Who is the Alpha and the Omega.
We shall see Jesus. We shall see His Face. We shall be like Him.
Heaven and only Heaven—that is the goal of our pilgrimage.
This is the house that God has built, for Our Lord says, I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2)
Let us go to meet Him, even now.
Blessed be God!
St. Louis IX, ora pro nobis.
Nathaniel Richards is a Catholic husband and father who lives in the Ozarks. He enjoys collecting Catholic books and promises that one day he will read most of them—eventually, maybe. Starting a Catholic bookstore that sells books rather than gifts is a dream of his. He converted from Oneness Pentecostalism to Anglicanism and eventually made his way to Catholicism in 2015.