Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Selling the Vatican to Feed the Poor

Sorry for not blogging the past few days--we had a hectic weekend and I've had a busy week so far at work and at home so I just haven't posted or had time to think of what to post!

In between events, I saw Kathy Schiffer's post on her Patheos blog about an encounter with a young man who thought St. Peter's Basilica was both beautiful and a symbol of corruption--that it should be sold and the money given to help the poor. “I looked up at the great basilica, and I had two reactions: First, I appreciated its beauty and reverence; but then I thought, ‘What corruption caused someone to spend so much on this building when people are hungry’?” 

She responded with four good points:

1. Gratitude Requires That We Preserve the Gifts of Those Who Have Gone Before Us.
2. Jesus himself expected that we would honor him with our wealth.
3. The Poor Deserve Beauty, Too.
4. Beauty Leads Us to Holiness.

Read her post to see how she fleshes each of these points out very reasonably and scripturally. 

I do have to wonder if the young man has the same response when he sees the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, or even the Mormon's Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah--“I looked up at the great Episcopalian Cathedral, and I had two reactions: First, I appreciated its beauty and reverence; but then I thought, ‘What corruption caused someone to spend so much on this building when people are hungry’?” -- “I looked up at the great Mormon Temple, and I had two reactions: First, I appreciated its beauty and reverence; but then I thought, ‘What corruption caused someone to spend so much on this building when people are hungry’?” Or was it a viscerally anti-Catholic reaction?

I addressed this same issue in an article for Homiletic & Pastoral Review last year:

. . . someone might say that the Vatican, and the churches around the world, should sell priceless artwork, using the money to eliminate poverty. That adjective “priceless” points out one of the flaws of that argument: who could afford to pay what it’s worth? But, even if other museums, and private collectors, could pay what that vast treasure of beauty is worth, would it really be enough to take care of all the poor? What happens when that money has been distributed, and the problem of poverty has still not been solved?

As nearly every guidebook comments about each great European capital with a Catholic heritage, the cathedrals and churches are a great free refuge and resource for the weary tourist. They offer shelter from heat and rain, a place to rest, and a feast for the eyes to see great artwork by Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, Tintoretto, and many others, especially that great and prolific artist, “Anonymous.” What about justice to the benefactors who gave artwork to the Church for the purpose of praising God in beautiful churches? Is it fair to their memory? Once the artwork is in private hands, for example, who will have access to it? The poor? Not likely.

Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the power of beauty--and personal holiness (the saints)--to attract people to God. Elizabeth Scalia offered some of his insights in a 2013 National Catholic Register article;

"The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes," said Cardinal Ratzinger at Rimini.

That wound, that opening in our hardened opinions, our complacent convictions, leaves us exposed. As the Pope said to artists, that dart "draws [man] out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart; but, in so doing, it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings."

That awakening can make man thirst for truth, to reject the false, the superficial and illusory. Beauty is dangerous. If it captures the heart, it can make one change. Ovid knew it; Dante knew it. And Benedict has spent his pontificate telling us we have resources we haven’t even begun to tap.

Thanks to art and the exceptional lives of saintly men and women, the Church — the custodian of beauty and Truth for the past 2,000 years — still has a powerful voice in the world of culture. In the great cultural battlefield of our era, Pope Benedict has shown future generations how to get into the trenches and win with grace, in every sense of the word.

As he said last August, at a general audience at Castel Gandolfo, "Art is capable of making visible our need to go beyond what we see, and it reveals our thirst for infinite beauty, for God."

There are "artistic expressions that are true paths to God, the supreme Beauty," which "help nurture our relationship with him in prayer. These are works that are born of faith and express faith."

The Pope recalled a concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music: "After the last piece of music, one of the Cantate, I felt, not by reasoning, but in my heart, that what I heard had conveyed to me truth, something of the truth of the great composer’s faith — and this pressed me to praise and thank the Lord."

He reminded the faithful that visiting churches, art galleries and museums can be "where we can stop and contemplate, in the transition from simple, external reality to a deeper reality, the ray of beauty that strikes us, that almost wounds us in our inner selves and invites us to rise towards God."

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