Dear Rev. Know it all,
I was watching television and saw the pope in a bejeweled miter. “How unlike Christ!” I thought. Christ was poor and had nothing. Why is it that we need gold chalices and stained glass windows and palatial cathedrals to worship God? Wouldn’t it be better to sell it all, give the proceeds to the poor and return to the simplicity of Christ?
Ivanna B. Veltie
Who told you that Christ had nothing? He was meek and humble of heart. He had no place to lay His head when was an itinerant preacher, but when he was in Galilee making a living, I imagine he owned His tools. I’ve seen the first floor of the house He lived in. It was pretty much what everyone else in town had.
Elsewhere we read, “There were many other women who took care of them (Jesus and the disciples) from their own possessions.” (Luke 8:3) It sounds like a church collection to me. On the other hand, didn’t Jesus tell the rich young man to sell what he had and give to the poor? Well certainly that’s true, but when he cast a demon out of another man who then wanted to leave everything and follow Him, Jesus told him to go back home and, in effect, take care of his family. One was to leave everything, the other was to return to everything (Luke 8:36,39) Then there was the charge that Judas used to steal from Jesus’ funds because he was entrusted with the finances (John 12:6). That means there were funds. They were given to Jesus and taken care of by Judas. That means Jesus was not poor. He payed his taxes.(Matt.17 24-27) He owned tools. He lived in a house. He had a fund raising committee. He fed the poor, but He ate with the rich. If a person was a slave to money, he told them to sell what they had. If they were alienated from their family, he seems to have told them to go home. He died a poor man’s death, but was buried in a rich man’s tomb.
One size does not fit all in the kingdom of God and Jesus is never quite what you and I think He should be. It is interesting to read the story in John 12 that, once, a woman poured expensive perfume, valued at about sixteen thousand dollars!!! ($16,000.00= 300 denarii, or 300 days’ wages for an unskilled worker at minimum wage.) on Jesus’ feet. Judas said that it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. So, you are not alone in your sentiments.
What has this to do with the Pope’s expensive hat? Everything. Why does the Pope have the hat? Do you really think he wears the hat on Friday night to go bowling? Does he stand in front of a mirror and say, “Boy, have I got a swell hat or what?” There isn’t enough money in the world to convince me to be a pope, or even a bishop, for that matter. Bishops and popes, at least in our times, are usually very poor men. I mean it. They have nothing that is really their own. Nothing, not even time.
I remember Bishop Conway, my former vicar, may he rest in peace. He was my immediate supervisor. I remember how hard he worked and how good he was to me who am, at times, a bit difficult. He was scheduled to confirm our eighth grade class. It is a customary to have a banquet with the confirming bishop and all those who are responsible for the instruction of the students. It is a grand event. When I saw him at a meeting, I asked the bishop what he preferred for the banquet, Vietnamese or Mexican. He replied, “Whatever is easiest. I looked at him and his tired expression and asked, “ Would you like to not have the banquet?” His eyes opened wide and he said, “Oh! That means I could eat at home that night!”
I felt so bad for him. Night after night, banquets and ceremonies and events, eating pickled squid one night, pig’s ear salad the next night and Heaven know what the night after that. (I am not making pig’s ear salad up. It is a Vietnamese specialty and everyone seems to have a unique recipe for it that they force you to try because it’s just like their grandmother used to make back home. Pigs’ ears are very crunchy. I needn’t go into detail)
Bishop Conway never got to say, “Heck. Let’s go to the movies. I’ll call in sick. He never got to do much. He was always at a meeting, or a banquet, or a ceremony, or answering angry phone calls about me. I remember him standing in the sun at some procession or dedication at which fireworks were blown off. It was really something. I remember the Cardinal jumped a foot. He was new to the liturgical use of fireworks. There Bishop Conway stood, glorious in his gold braided miter and damask robes partially shielded by a magnificent twenty foot tall, two foot wide parasol held by an enthusiastic participant. It was glorious. He tried to smile and look like he was enjoying it as he dripped sweat and choked on gun powder fumes from the ceremonial fireworks. Perhaps he really was having a good time, but I suspect he would have had a better time were he wearing a straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt.
We processed through the neighborhood, endured a two hour service with no bathroom breaks and then adjourned to the hall for, you guessed it, pig’s ear salad. I had to endure this a few times a year. He endured that sort of thing just about every day in one way or another. Magnify this by ten and you’ve got the Cardinal. Magnify this by twenty and you’ve got the pope. Ah, the glorious perks of office, pointy hats and strange food, all punctuated by jet lag. As I said, popes and bishops are some of the poorest people on earth. They lack what the even the guests at our parish soup kitchen had plenty of: time.
I remember a story about Pope John XXIII. An old friend of his came to see him after his election to the papacy. He gave his old friend a tour of his private apartments and showed him the closet. There, neatly arranged were a few pairs of white papal slippers, He sighed and said, “See, they even took my shoes away.” John Paul II insisted on wearing brown shoes made by a cobbler back home in Poland. When he was buried and his body carried out of the Vatican we saw the worn, scuffed bottoms of the shoes. To me, it said so much about the man. A man who the world thinks could have had anything he wanted was buried in scuffed brown shoes that were on their way to having holes in them.
I remember seeing some show touring the Vatican. Pope John Paul II had a study and a small bedroom with what appeared to be a single bed and his computer desk about ten feet away. The rooms that were just his weren’t much bigger than mine. He did have a nice dining room and a reception room, but he had to share these with an endless stream of “important”guests. He had a little walkway on the roof, oh, and a really nice garden. Boy, talk about luxury! Give me a break, these men are truly the slaves of the Lord. If someone in the business world get to the top of a large organization, they are in fat city! Not so with the Catholic Hierarchy. Priests can’t retire till they’re seventy, bishops can’t retire till they’re seventy-five and Popes drop dead on the job. No retirement to a penthouse condo in Boca. No, they just travel the world eating pig's ear salad or something like it, listening to problems and trying to remembering what it was like to get a full night’s sleep.
Yes, let’s sell all the cathedrals and the art and the funny hats with gold braid and shiny stones. Let’s sell the gold chalices and the damask robes and the incense burners and paint everything beige. Then the bankers will own it and the poor will never see it. Hasn’t it occurred to you that the few places that the poor are welcome are in the great churches? Any man or woman from the beggar to the king can come into a traditional Catholic Church and hear live music that, if it’s traditional, is breathtakingly beautiful. They can see gold and light and smell incense and see a hint of heaven on earth. They can usually sit right in front, because oddly, it’s the back seats that are full. The church building, you see, is really the palace of the poor. All the pageantry is for the glory of God, which St. Irenaeus explained in around the year 200, is man fully alive.” What man or woman is fully alive without art? Your pious puritanism has infected the modern European and American mind and you have deprived the poor of beauty by making the church boring, boring, boring.
Today’s “modern” art and music is, for the most part, tomorrow’s joke. Modern liturgy is often as ugly as most modern art. There is no mystery, no romance, no shine. Just endless sermons on puritanical themes by tedious preachers in polyester vestments. And, as Jesus said, the poor are always with us. The beauty traditionally associated with Catholic worship at least makes them rich for an hour or so.
As for feeding the poor. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization on earth. The world is filled with Catholic hospitals, schools, orphanages, soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing rooms and more. You complain about the shiny hats on popes and bishops. Has it occurred to you that the charlatans you elect to office don’t think twice about hiring their cousins for a well paid, do-nothing job, or flying to the Bahamas on a fact finding tour or jetting to Copenhagen for a one day photo-op about the global energy crisis. They do this with your tax dollars, extracted from you with the force of law. You have no real freedom as regards the ever increasing taxes and the ever growing luxury of the ruling classes. The Church, on the other hand, maintains its charities by free will offerings. Your contribution to the church is up to you. Though I would point out that if you fail to pay your taxes you will have to face the IRS. If you fail to remember the poor, you will have to face quite another judge.