Orvieto's magnificent cathedral dating from the 15th century.
Travelling in Europe is a salutary reminder of how far Christianity has come. Fallen, if you want to count numbers; changed from sublime to mundane if art is your yardstick; lost a sense of mystery if you look at the world through the eyes of science.
In one idyllic Greek island with an out-of-season population of about 15,000 souls, we were told there are about 300 churches, or one church building for every 50 inhabitants. There are historical reasons for this, of course, and most of those churches are unused, apart from providing photo opportunities for tourists. But it is a reminder of a time when the church was the focal point of a community, when it spoke the same language that the people spoke.
A short distance north-east of Rome is the town of Orvieto, with a magnificent cathedral dating from the 15th century. It dominates a large square at the top of a steep climb. On the outside front walls are a series of reliefs depicting biblical stories: the creation, Adam and Eve, Cain, Abraham.
Inside the building, a side chapel has a graphic depiction of how it will all end: bodies rising from soft ground in various stages from skeleton to muscled Davids, some being brutally claimed by horned devils, some looking sadly upwards, sadness in those times being the sign of piety.
The whole shemozzle is supervised by angels, some blowing trumpets, some pouring fire from above in a manner that would have them up for war crimes today. The story is carried around the circular walls, under a canopy painted by the Dominican Fra Angelico before he was recalled to Rome to do more important work for the pope of the day.
The reliefs outside and the art inside are reminders of a time when the great majority of the faithful could not read or write and needed to get the stories they heard at church reinforced in art. But there is an even more forceful reminder of how things have changed.
That church at Orvieto in common with many other big churches and basilicas, has had pews removed and replaced by chairs extending halfway down the centre aisle; the rest of the space is marble-vaulted, noisy emptiness. We were told that, apart from the great feasts, Mass is usually celebrated in the smaller side chapels, and that the chairs are for music or drama performances. It would be easy to imagine that a century from now, the main use of those cathedrals will be to serve the same tourist markets that castles and palaces do today.
Later in our travels, we were shown around Ephesus by a middle-aged guide who asked us to call him George. Born and raised in nearby Greece, he now calls Turkey home; his English was accented but flawless, so his adoption of that English name was a small concession to us First World monolinguals.
He was a Muslim, but pointed out to us how much Christianity owes to his country. He reminded us that Paul was a Turk and showed us where he addressed the people of Ephesus; he pointed out sites associated with John and Luke, and spoke of the Holy Virgin with the kind of respect that would shame many of us.
The highlight of that brief visit to Ephesus was the opportunity to attend Mass, celebrated in English by a young Polish Capuchin on a small makeshift altar next to a rebuilt house, said to be the place where Mary died. We were a congregation of about 25 who broke off from a much larger group.
It was a deeply emotional experience: the readings were familiar, the homily brief and perfect, the responses firm, the sign of peace dignified and meaningful. At the end, when we said the Hail Mary together, mine was not the only voice with a catch in it.
George was saddened by the thought that Christian Europe would always find reasons to keep Muslim Turkey out of its rich boys' club. Ataturk was his hero, but he was careful not to offer any opinion on what seems like a move towards an increasing influence by Islam in his country, pointing out instead that mixed bathing was common on their beaches.
Perhaps if he were to visit any of the largely empty churches in Europe today, places to be ticked off by loud, hurrying tourists rather than used for prayerful worship, he might be tempted to change his mind.
Frank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.