In Calvin’s Hometown

Notre Dame de Noyon has seen plenty of destruction. The statues and most of the carvings that adorned its façade were smashed by Protestants during the Wars of Religion. The church bells that called a young John Calvin to mass were melted down to become cannons and ammunition for Napoleon. And the town of Noyon was almost reduced to ruins during the First World War.

Today, the church’s scarred façade still watches over the town. Within, its sanctuary shows little evidence of the violence that has afflicted it.

During our visit, we sat in one of its many side chapels, in front of a huge stone baptismal font, and talked about spiritual practices—both our own and those of the Catholic Church before the Reformation.

In the days of John Calvin, most of the worship service would have been conducted in Latin. The worship experience would have been more meditative than intellectual (since few worshippers would be able to understand the words), yet all worshippers in all places throughout Christendom would have heard mass in the same language. The smell of incense would have permeated the air, visually symbolizing prayers rising to heaven and shielding sensitive noses from the smell of unwashed bodies. In the many side chapels, masses and prayers would be said throughout the day, creating a steady hum. And candles and stained glass would have cast changing light.

It would have been a very different experience from the one we Protestant churchgoers are used to. Yet that would have been the norm for John Calvin, who was born in a house nearby.

We all have a piety—a way we interact with and experience the divine—said Rev. Dr. Roberta Clare. She asked us: How would you explain your piety to someone who has never encountered your tradition before? How are our traditions commonly perceived by others? And do we struggle to articulate these things?



About Connie Wardle

Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.