Going for Baroque

A commenter notes about Benedict XVI’s more exalted taste in regalia that he doesn’t think Peter the fisherman would be comfortable in such outfits.

This is a commonplace argument when faced with the glories of Catholic regalia, liturgy, music or architecture. “What!” says the tourist when faced with an Austrian baroque church, “this is hardly the sort of temple one would expect for one born in a stable.” Another similar argument protests that such rich finery and opulent temples are a waste of money. The expenditure should go to the poor.

We must come back with several trenchant replies. First of all, one must understand the reason for the fine architecture, the rich vestments, the beautiful music and the exalted liturgy. It is there not to show the humble aspect of our Lord’s birth, but his glorious existence today. The Catholic opulence is not show for the sake of show. It is a feeble attempt to remind us of the glory of heaven. It is an attempt to take us into the very presence of the heavenly host. The baroque churches exemplify this best. The plaster, the gilt, the columns, the ormolu, the cherubs and lush paintings are all an attempt to pull back the veil and glimpse the glories of heaven. It is the same for the grand music, the fine vestments and the glorious liturgies. They do not show the humility and humanity of Christ, (the church does this in other ways) but the worship of the King of Glory.

The question is not so much, “Would Peter the fisherman be comfortable in richly embroidered regalia?” but “What does Saint Peter the Great Apostle look like where he is now?” I doubt if he is wearing a fisherman’s smock and smelling of yesterday’s catch. To be sure, he is now clothed in the radiance of Christ himself. Now he wears the matryr’s crown, he is robed in white and no doubt if we could see his heavenly vesture they would make the pope’s fine robes look like beggar’s rags. The Pope does not therefore show us Peter the Fisherman, but Saint Peter the Apostle–more glorious in holiness than we could dare imagine.

There is more to it than this: what shall we make of the argument that the money should be given to the poor? We must be careful here. That is the argument of Judas. We must remember when the woman came and broke the vessel of rich ointment over the feet of Jesus. What a costly and extravagant act of worship, and yet it was fitting and it was Judas who would have stopped such worship.

Remember also, that the finery and the opulence and grandeur is not the only display the church makes. While the pope displays the power and the glory and the destiny of the saints, the poor missionaries of charity display the foundation for that power and glory. While the fine liturgies display the great grace of God active in the world, the poor missionaries, friars and those persecuted for their faith display the source and true foundation of God’s action in the world. Everywhere the church is both in the gutter with the lowest of humanity and yet reminding us of our destiny among the stars.

Both are needed if we are to be true, and both were there from the very beginning. The shepherds worshiped at the stable with their simple gifts, their crude poverty and their humble faith, but the kings were there too. With their fine robes, and their costly gifts they made an offering worthy of the King of Kings.

If we are to be true to the incarnation then this dual offering will always be made. We will always offer the gifts of the poor from the poor to the one who became poor for our sake, but we will also always offer the richest and finest things to the one who is the King of Kings.

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  • David Deavel

    I’ve noticed that the people who complain loudest about sumptuous Churches or extravagant vestments are often the same people who have very sumptuous houses and rather extravagant clothes for their own use.

  • Carolina Catholic

    Father, you have made an excellent argument for the increased use of the Traditional Latin Mass, which many have called “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven.”

  • And they usually put the lowest amount in the collection plate! Let Benedict(XVI) himself make the case: “The concern for the beauty of God’s house and the concern for the poor cannot be separated. Man is in need not only of what is useful but also of what is beautiful; he needs not only his own house but also the presence of God and the signs of His presence.Wherever He is glorified, there our heart rejoices also.”

  • I always make myself unpopular by pointing out that Solomon didn’t exactly pinch pennies on the Temple, did he?

  • This is a very good explanation. Much complaining goes back to poor faith formation and not understanding the Old Testament. God gave clear instructions about the construction of the Ark, about the Temple(s) and also about fineness of sacrifice due. He didn’t say to pick up any driftwood they can find and cobble something together using tin and a spritz of rustoleum. God understands that a combination of meaningful sacrifice of treasury for the purpose of the Lord’s place of worship and the creation of a sense of the sacred space (an opening to heaven which previously was reserved for only the temple high priest to view) is necessary for cultivating human’s receptivity to the higher and rejection of the lower. (Hence, as you point out, the temptation of Judas, which is to treat the sacred just as you would the earthly). That is the seductive temptation, to pull down the sacred to a humanity-derived lowest common denominator of presentation rather than reach up.

  • Anonymous

    Nonetheless, I still prefer icons and older architectural styles instead of the Baroque period

  • “That is the seductive temptation, to pull down the sacred to a humanity-derived lowest common denominator of presentation rather than reach up.”MMF, you have summed up nicely what has been going on for hundreds of years in and outside of the Church.St John Damascene in the 8th Century fought against this but the gnostic heresy of invisible=good- and material=bad continues to rear its ugly head.Very Nice Post Father, I linked to it on my blog. God bless

  • Recusant

    The point is also that beautiful art, architecture, music, liturgy, etc, last forever – or as long as they are maintained – whereas if they were sold off any money raised would be spent on the current poor(optimistically). The poor of the future would then have neither money nor beauty.

  • Great explanation..but some just don’t get it…

  • thank you for your good comments. I like the point about the permanence of the beautiful. Is anyone suggesting that we demolish the Sistine Chapel? I doubt it. This is also in good contrast to the separated brethren, who for the most part, follow the latest trend in religion. What do they build that lasts?

  • Rodney Beason

    Please pull the conversion story from Holy Spirit Interactive. I have asked you kindly twice before.

  • Patrick T

    A note about vestments…I have heard from a few priests in the past that they just don’t like ornate traditional vestments because, “that’s just not me.” Somehow, we need to remind them that “no, Father it’s not you. It’s not about you. When you say Mass you are Christ offering the ultimate sacrifice to God the Father. Isn’t it fitting that Christ be richly adorned in the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’?”

  • Jeannine

    I remember hearing a story about Fulton Sheen that is relevant to this issue. A priest came to talk to him, complaining that the Church spends too much money on beautiful churches and not enough on the poor. Sheen asked him, “Father, how much are you stealing?” The priest then confessed that he had been embezzling money from his parish.Obviously, not everyone who accuses the Church of devoting too much money to beautiful churches and vestments is stealing from the Church, but I suspect that some do have a guilty conscience about the poor. People can feel better about their own failure to be charitable if they can accuse the Church of lack of charity.

  • I think that’s true, and it’s worth noting that people who give money to churches also give more than others do to non-religious charities, according to the survey data in the book “Who Really Cares?” In other words, the same people who donate money for church-building donate more of it to the poor. Those who give nothing to churches give less to the poor as well. I think the same psychological dynamic Jeannine describes is often in play when we hear complaints about the poor in Latin America being “forced” to not use birth control, or complaints about HIV-positive people in Africa not being allowed to use condemns. People can feel better about their own violations of the Church’s moral teachings if they can manufacture arguments that somewhere in the world, those teachings are unjust.

  • Those who criticise the finery of vestments and say the clergy should wear sackcloth as a symbol of Christ’s poverty would do well to look at the church catalogues. You will find that scruffy modern vestments are just as expensive as fine traditional ones. In bringing old gear out our Holy Father is actually saving money. Previously brand new sets were made up for each papal mass at great expense, and each one has hardly ever been reused.

  • Since this post was directed at a passing comment I made earlier, I’ll just venture a couple thoughts.1. I’m not opposed to beauty or beautiful and reverent ways of ordering our liturgical practices. Any iconoclasm that is simply puritanism should rightly be suspect.2. The main premise of this post is that the church’s worship should reflect its heavenly glory rather than its earthly poverty, which presumably is demonstrated in the lives of the saints. I fear this creates too much of a dichotomy between Christ’s kenosis and his plerosis. The cross is not merely Christ’s humiliation, it is also his glory. The fundamental dichotomy between glory as beauty/fanciness and humilty as plainness is noting if not forced. It makes for good rhetoric, but is hardly an argument.3. The equation of arguing that money should be spent on the poor with the objection of Judas is another hip rhetorical move with no substance. There is no need to multiply Jesus’ many statements that following him meant the giving up of one’s possessions, and giving to the poor. I’m not here advocating that we all become Franciscans, only pointing out that the spry jab of associating critics of papal opulence with Judas is noting more than another rhetorical flourish which makes no real argument.4. It is not clear to me why Christian worship is supposed to embody a sort of beatific vision on earth. That seems to rely on an over-realized eschatology.Let me clarify by saying that I don’t think it’s “wrong” for the pope to wear regalia or that baroque cathedrals should be torn down. However I do think that they are at best ambigious goods which are open to critique in order for the church to discern together how contiue on its faithful pilgrimage toward the future of God.

  • Patrick T

    Halden said:”4. It is not clear to me why Christian worship is supposed to embody a sort of beatific vision on earth. That seems to rely on an over-realized eschatology.”It was made very clear in Sacrosanctum Concilium:”In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.”The liturgy and the church itself is supposed to be a “foretaste” of the ultimate beauty of heaven.

  • I’m sorry, I should have clarified. I realize that is the offical statement of that Vatican II document (though, I don’t think it is a dogmatic constitution technically). I am rather questioning whether that particular theological perspective relies on an over-realized eschatology. It seems to me that it does.

  • What in blue blazes do these critics think old Israel’s temple worship and litrugical appointments looked like?There should be no less for the New Israel. That is what we are.

  • Dwight dear boy,Happy HogmanayGreat post. You are spot on here and if only more brave Catholic clergy like you would speak so instead of over-emphasising pew poverty and the bleakness of terrible churches.I’m going to send your words to the elders in my own Evangelical church which has all the decoration appeal of a minimilist dentist’s surgey. I can’t understand why many good Prods are happy to dance ‘like David danced’ as long as the walls are beige and the decoration as dull as a Scott Hahn lecture. (sorry, couldn’t resist)Only, be careful and don’t over cook the cornicing effect. Too much can be a barrier to prayer.I’d go a little further than you and suggest Catholic priests ditch the black and bring some colour and spiritual sartorial into their own garb. Why let the devil have all the best suits?BlessingsJames

  • Wow James, you hit all the classiest comboxes…That last offering… From anyone else it would sound just plain pedantic. Getting to know you, I will just chalk it up to extra colorful.Should you get tired of the beige walls of your new Evangelical community, you can always return to your old Home.And if you could find it in your ex-Catholic turned Evangelical heart to refer to Father at least as “Pastor Dwight” I think he is owed at least that much. If it makes you feel any more comfortable, he did at least go to Bob Jones U.

  • James, always nice to have you pay a visit. Don’t you see that our austere clerical black clothes are just as symbolic as the rich vestments we wear? The everyday black soutane or black suit speaks of the simple poverty a priest should follow in his everyday life, and the apostolic simplicity he should observe. The rich vestments are not for his show, but to symbolize the graces that he receives and bestows as a glorious adopted son of the highest. There’s more: when the priest wears rich vestments to enter into the holy of holies he also shows all of the faithful what glories await them as ‘priests’ of the new covenant. We shall all be changed. We will be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and be more radiant and beautiful than we can now imagine.

  • A most entertaining post sequence. It warms my non-Roman heart to see such convincing evidence of a renewal of pride by my Roman brethren* in the way they worship God. All too often in the recent past Roman heads (including those in Rome itself) have had to be hung in shame. May such renewal filter down to worship at every level of the Church and may it survive the present pontificate.Looking at the splendid papal mitre I was prompted to get out my virtual tape measure to see how it compared to the dimensions of a similar piece of headgear sported by Fr D’s episcopal superior in a previous existence. The last time I saw said item it was being carried by the now retired prelate to where it was needed in a plastic supermarket carrier bag. I found this an appropriate juxtaposition of the mundane and the transcendent. I don’t imagine the Holy Father sees too many plastic bags these days. *used in a non-gender-specific sense as allowed for in the OED

  • Anonymous

    I do love to see our Holy Father wearing the vestments and learning the history of where they are from – our previous priest almost stripped our entire church of statues, paintings, vestments, candel holders, monstrances and removed the Blessed Sacrament out of the main church (amidst protests!) – he even wanted to smash up the beautiful altar and tabernacle and throw away the pews for chairs – and when he first arrived he seriously desired to whitewash the copy of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling done my pa above us – but no, all 300 Old Testament figures stared down at the priest rebukingly and people were still able to glance up and feel a part of our great Catholic heritage – a link to Rome if you will – for us who have seen our church objects cast away (and at times thrown out!) it is so lovely to see Pope Benedict show us these beautiful uplifting things. EmilyinMarysDowry

  • Many thanks for the compliment, A Simple Sinner. Ecumenical relations have reached a new high!I prefer to use people’s Christian names but if a priest or pastor or bank manager requests I use Fr. or Rev. or Your Majesty when addressing them, then I will. I don’t mean any disrespect or ‘dis’ as the under-25s say today.Dwight, re the priest’s black outfit. No ‘dis’ meant again, but very few clergy live lives of simple poverty. I don’t see why they should. Jesus wasn’t poor after all. Most clergy I speak to have their rent paid, credit card bills paid, have use of a car and take overseas holidays. I know, because I speak to enough when writing for the Catholic media. I’m all in favour of it.My dad worked for 16 years in our parish presbytery, St Mungo’s, Townhead, Glasgow. In those days there were some 7 or 8 priests, (Passionists) in the parish. They had three meals a day, individual bedrooms, two community cars, holidays, a TV room, a library, a walk-in pantry stocking every food and alcoholic drink imaginable, and my dad to go to the betting shop for them when they fancied a flutter on the horses.When you look at almost all images of Jesus, from ancient icons to the Sacred Heart to Mel Gibson’s movie, Jesus almost always dresses like his peers.Oh, A Simple Sinner, I like visiting my old (Catholic) house, but there’s too much clutter there, so I’ll stick with the beige over the baroque.BlessingsJames

  • James, I didn’t say all Catholic priests live lives of poverty. They’re not obliged to unless they’re Franciscans. I believe canon law says the priest should live a life of apostolic simplicity. He should be provided with all he needs, but he should not live a life that is extravagant, luxurious, worldly, gluttonous and wanton.I realize these standards are relative to the age and the society in which we live, and that not all priests live even this standard.Nevertheless, it is this standard of simplicity as opposed to luxurious profligacy which the priest’s simple black garb should reference.

  • Dwight,My oldest sister is a religious (Daughter of Charity of St Vincent de Paul) In the UK her order voted to abandon the old blue habit for ‘civillian’ clothes.She now dresses via the UK equivilent of Wal Mart. Hardly luxurious or extravagant, but I feel she is more approachable than a black suited priest.She felt the habit separated her from society in a negative way. Now she feels the focus is not on her but Jesus and the Gospel which she shows through her prayers first and work second. She has a ministry to prostitutes and feels they can better relate to her than when she was in habit.Blessingsjames

  • Many religious and priests testify that it is because they wear their uniform that people see them, trust them and approach them. They would say their clerical uniform is not about them at all, but it is a uniform that cloaks their individuality. Their individual taste in dress is subsumed in the uniform.They would argue that their clerical dress or habit is a sign of contradiction. It is an outward sign of their calling and their commitment. It is, if you like, the equivalent of the prophet’s sackcloth and ashes or camels hair and leather.It would be interesting to know how many of the prostitutes your sister works with know she is a religious sister. Do they believe he is just a social worker or a volunteer helper, or do they actually realize she is motivated in all she does by her Catholic faith?If she wore her habit this would go without saying.However, I can see her point as well.

  • Dwight,Your bloggers may wonder why I am commenting on this issue; some wonder why I comment on any Catholic issue!However, as the Body of Christ, how we go about spreading the Gospel is important. I agree with you there is no one correct answer to this question. Interestingly, my sister, Margaret, explains that when her order was founded in Paris, it began with a group of Catholic women meeting regularly to pray and help the poor. To make sure they did not stand out and detract from their prayer and work, they wore the ordinary clothes of the time. As the order became organised, the habit was introduced. In a sense, the order has returned to its roots by the sisters wearing ordinary clothes, although they all wear crosses outside their clothes. All the prostitutes Margaret speaks to, women and men, know she is a religious sister or nun for shorthand. I think your pope looks splendid in his great robes and the pictures will confuse, even anger, the secular world which thinks all Christians should be poor and live in lack. Even Mother Teresa did not demand that. Andrew Wommack got it right when he said: “We should no more reject the blessing of prosperity than covet it, which would be idolatry.”And Billy Graham added: “Our cheque book is a theological statement.”BlessingsJames

  • Beautiful post, Father!

  • James we may have to agree to disagree. There is little more visually comforting than a sister in habit in service to the poor and needful.

  • I agree with James that some religious sisters and brothers intentionally wear ordinary clothes, and that this too is a good thing if that is their charism.

  • Anonymous

    I cannot take seriously any religious who desires to dress like a layman. Are they ashamed to give witness to Christ and to the Church? Are they ashamed to cause discussion of the gospel message? Are they ashamed to be approached by someone ignorant of the Church and might possibly be educated in the Truth?Thankfully, most religious orders that do not bother to dress like religious are a dying breed. This is for a number of reasons, but partly it’s a question of marketing. How do people know that such an order exists if their members are not recognizable in the community? How can they draw vocations? Fortunately, the members of the more traditional orders – who wear the clothes and profess the faith – are thriving. These will be the orders that survive.

  • I wonder what you think of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity? In India, their habit is very much like the ordinary clothes of other women, although uniform in design and colour, so the sisters blend in but also stand out! A bit like Western sisters who dress in civillian gear but have a prominant cross around their necks. However, in Europe or America, the Missionaries of Charity only stand out as most women do not wear a sari.I think its too harsh to accuse religious or priests of being ashamed of the Gospel by not wearing ‘religious clothes.’ Jesus and his apostles dressed like their peers.Besides, why single out religious and priests? Clothes say a lot about the non-ordained. Is church the place for low-cut tops or hipster jeans and designer underwear? Can you enter heaven wearing a Rolex?BlessingsJames

  • You don’t, I hope, have any experience at a church that checks underwear… I hope.

  • I remember at my old Catholic parish (Evangelicals are guilty of this too) one Christmas. The parish priest led the procession to place Baby Jesus in the crib. A teenage girl had been given the job of carrying Baby Jesus. When the procession reached the crib, it stood aside as the teenager went to place Jesus in his manger. At this point, no one noticed the priest’s fine Christmas vestements; no one noticed the smart looking members of the St Vincent de Paul in their white sashes; no one heard the choir perfectly sing Gloria in Excelsis; no one even noticed the muddy sneakers the altar boys wore beneath their well ironed soutans. Everyone’s attention was distracted as the teenage girl bent over to place Baby Jesus in his manger. Her hipsters went south, her skimpy top went north and her bright red thong rose up and, verily, St Calvin de Klein (and a lot more) was on display for the world to see. The weary eyes of the elderly St Vincent de Paul president rising to the ceiling said it all.Blessingsjames

  • I agree James. I have had a very similar experience at a Catholic Charismatic conference in which the teen girls did a liturgical incense offering dance. The swaying hips, exposed midriffs etc. were a distraction to say the least.On clerical dress. Canon law simply says priests should wear ‘distinctive dress.’ We should wear something that marks our profession.

  • pelerin

    Interesting to read James Hastings comments. One of them referring to the young girl and the Crib reminded me of when I last attended Mass in westminster Cathedral. A young girl sat down in front of me and as she did so her low cut jeans went south exposing her thong! I kept telling myself that at least she was present there and probably had no idea what she looked like from my point of view. Don’t parents check on what their daughters wear any more?On the subject of Nuns not wearing habits, I had a long conversation with a lady last year in Lourdes while waiting for the procession to start through the town. She was dressed in jeans, T shirt and fashionable handbag over her shoulder. She was about my age 60ish so inevitably the conversation turned towards children and grandchildren. At that point she told me she was a ‘religieuse’ ! I suppose i might not have started chatting if she had been dressed in a habit, in fact I know I would not so perhaps she wanted to talk to lay people, I don’t know.

  • frederick nacino

    what shall we make of the argument that the money should be given to the poor? We must be careful here. That is the argument of JudasA minor correction. I believe this is from matthew 26:7-14. The Bible indicates that the disciples (plural) complained. Don’t need to single out Judas, poor guy has enough troubles of his own.

  • xyz

    http://www.osb.org.br/english.htmlText in Portuguese, but if anyone happens to be travelling to Rio…Of course being Brazilian makes me rather biased, but it´s great to think of what was built down here from Trento on, long after baroque was over in Europe. If one is minimally acquainted with European (and especially Portuguese) baroque, it only adds to one´s delight. By the way, the monastery in Rio is pretty much alive and monks there (like in São Paulo) are generally fond of Latin: not the case in all monasteries down here; but then, not the case everywhere else in the world either. So much the better.