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Fourteen Secrets for Enjoying Visiting Churches in Italy With Kids

Pat Byrne

Much of the art in Italy is in churches so it is inevitable that you will find yourself inside some churches in Italy. I remember, as a child traveling with my family in Italy, I dreaded mother saying, "Put on your scarves, girls" (you had to cover your head then).

So with the help of siblings and children, we have developed the following list of ideas that will help children enjoy visiting churches. Your children may ask to visit more churches.

  • Remember that even on hot days, churches can be a cool and quiet oasis. Enjoy sitting quietly, cooling off, silently contemplating anything you want to.
  • You must exhibit some modesty to enter most churches, which means covering shoulders and knees and stomachs. Not all churches enforce this, but be prepared with a scarf to wrap around shoulders or middle.
  • Find frescoes to interpret your own, imaginative way. Write your story or tell it to someone (quietly).
    - A family would pay for a fresco and ask that their portraits be placed in it. So look for a group of, usually, kneeling people with normal looking faces and see if you can figure out who is related to whom.
    - Until the Renaissance, early 1400s, artists had trouble with perspective; take a look at the paintings to see how true the perspective is.
  • Collect saint and martyr names in a list. You can see paintings and statues that refer to miracles performed by the saints, and, in the case of martyrs, the way they died. (This isn't for the squeamish.)
  • You can find and collect small saint cards called "santini" by giving a donation. They usually have a picture on the front and a prayer and/or information about the saint's life. My son thinks of them like trading cards.
  • You may not be familiar with a holy water font. It's a bowl of water that has been blessed and placed inside the entrance to a church. Catholics dip the tips of their right fingers in it and make the sign of the cross by touching their forehead (father), chest (son), left shoulder (Holy Ghost), and right shoulder (Amen).
  • Find the altar of the patron saint of the church. Clues:
    - The altar that has a picture/statue of a saint the same name as the church. Is there a relic from the saint enshrined in the altar? It might actually be a piece of the Saint's body! What is it?
    - Special decoration.
  • Sometimes you will see silver and gold votive offerings that people place on the wall all around a saint's altar when their prayers to him/her seem to make something good happen. They are often plaques of hearts because the saint has a reputation for healing sick or broken hearts. Other figures and body parts are less common.
  • Watch for a red lamp by an altar that means that at that time, it contains the hosts (little wafers of bread that have been blessed), so Catholics believe that, in a spiritual way, the body of Christ is in that altar at that moment. Notice that some people genuflect (drop one knee close to the floor) and cross themselves when passing in front of that altar. You should also show respect even if you do not genuflect.
  • Look for a bank of small candles near several altars. People make a donation to light a candle. They say a silent prayer while they light it, and then leave it burning to symbolically carry the prayer to heaven.
  • Find graves in the floor. Why do you think people wanted to be buried in the floor?
  • Sniff for the really neat smell of incense. Burning incense is an ancient practice used long before Christianity. Today it symbolizes offering something that is pleasing to God with the rising of the sweet-smelling smoke. It may have served as an ancient air freshener, baths were not common things when these churches were built. Frankincense (same thing) was one of the gifts of the Magi to the baby Jesus.
  • Right inside the doors of the church or, possibly outside under the portico, you may find a bulletin board with marriage banns announcements. People must announce that they plan to get married, just in case someone wants to object. How old are the people who are getting married? Are the names all Italian?
  • Watch for weddings and wedding parties. They are fun to quietly observe from the sidelines.

Pat Byrne is a frequent traveler in Italy often with her children, nieces and nephews. To enhance their appreciation, she wrote and published the Kids Europe Italy Discovery Journal which is available from the Kids Europe website, www.KidsEurope.com.

© Copyright Kids Europe 2005

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