Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When friends gather at New Years to sing “auld lang syne,” or attend class reunions, they wax nostalgic about the years gone by, the friends and places from the past. Religious and civil holidays commemorate events we don’t want to forget. There is no more nostalgic time than when we gather to celebrate the birth of our Lord. It is the time for stories from St. Luke or Dickens, for singing carols and serving traditional foods. Even if the faces change at our table, the foods, readings and music are pretty much the same.

Lately, there are those who lament that shared longing for a certain place is being lost so quickly that it will soon be unnecessary to sing the old Welsh song at New Year’s.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert finds America’s homogenization is robbing us of a sense of place. Where we once had downtowns with unique shops, today a cross country drive finds the same chains from town to town. Specialty has lost out to the promise of the same goods arranged in the same way from state to state. The commercial heaven of our childhood, Woolworth’s 5 and 10, displayed its treasures in most towns across the country, but the items were so individual it was worth posting gifts to someone far away.

Once commercial leveling has allowed the same burger and polo shirt to be available everywhere, Americans may no longer be nostalgic for some place special, since wherever they are they will see the same landscapes of their youth. When people remember meeting at Starbucks with a girl, or at the Gap with the one they married, they will be marinating memories that happened everywhere, but not somewhere special.

Nostalgia -- made up of the Greek root for “suffering” and “return” -- is literally a longing for the places of one’s past. While our hometowns continue to shape our wardrobes with stock items, they lose what made them our hometown.

Catholics, however, have a sense of being at home in countless places because of the Church. Wherever Catholics wander, we see familiar architecture (there are some egregious exceptions -- and their very uniqueness is distressing) the sign we are near our Church. If we are in a foreign country and the horizon is unfamiliar we look for a Gothic steeple or a bell tower. If we are attending a wedding in an unfamiliar town, we look for a soaring spire for navigation. Whether we are in St. Louis or Seattle, St. Augustine or Syracuse, we can be at home in a Catholic church displaying the red light of the Blessed Sacrament. In these unfamiliar places and churches, the cruciform layout is recognizable and we find the sanctuary, the altar, pulpit, confessionals, and maybe a bishop’s chair.

One reason for the vigils to keep parishes open in Boston was a strong, emotional attachment to place. We were clinging to our parish as our place in this quickly changing world. The pull of the place where many were baptized, confirmed, maybe married, seemed stronger than ever. Parishes are, as one priest joked, places where we are “hatched, matched and dispatched.”

Catholics are people of place. Some make pilgrimages to Lourdes or Fatima and others have always planned a visit to Bethlehem or Ephesus but nary a Catholic among us does not want to see Rome, the Eternal City, before they die. Fortunate pilgrims will never forget a walk down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Basilica. They see the Egyptian obelisk and sundial, two bubbling fountains by Bernini and Maderno before entering Michelangelo’s high dome. They pass by the 15th century Palazzo dei Penitenzieri and onward into St. Peter’s where 140 saints look down on them from atop Bernini’s colonnade. Today the attachment to Rome is so great that long lines form awaiting entrance to the basilica.

The obelisk in the center of the piazza is the most precious element of the vast panorama of St. Peter’s. Nearly 2,000 years old, it has historic relevance. Brought from Egypt on an enormous raft it was a bauble to satisfy Emperor Caligula’s desire to beautify his private Circus. But more important is the religious value. It was here that the first mass executions of Christians took place. The obelisk is nothing less than “mute witness” to the martyrdom of St. Peter. According to ancient tradition, the apostle was crucified “iuxta obeliscum,” next to the obelisk. Now it commemorates the triumph of the cross.

Catholics are attached to their traditions and exalted places we call holy sites. Our nostalgia may not be only for childhood memories, but for the lasting ties of art and place that capture our tradition.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.