What is the truly Catholic version of poverty? What is the truly Catholic version of beauty?
Here’s a dilemma: my parish is in the worst socio economic area of our town. Across the street from our campus is a crappy old motel which was built along I-85 probably forty years ago. It’s a notorious flophouse. What goes on there? Suffice it to say that they offer weekly, daily and hourly rates…It’s not the worst. Next door is another old motel just as bad and across the highway there is the worst one of all with the sadly ironic name of Camelot. Up the street another run down motel has been transformed by some heroic people into a residential drug rehab center for men. You name it we’ve got it.
We’ve got prostitution, gangs, drugs and crime. We’ve got broken homes, broken hearts and broken lives.
In the midst of this we are trying to build a beautiful new church. Here’s a picture of it. As you can imagine there are some who complain that we are spending money building this beautiful building when the poor are in great need. So we reply that it was Judas who made that argument–when the woman came with rich ointment to worship the Lord Judas wanted to sell it and give the money to the poor. “The poor you shall have with you always” says Jesus in reply. Have you thought how arrogant that must have sounded? Either he was a megalomaniac or he was Christ the Lord.
It sounds arrogant and disdainful in our day as well does it not? As if in building a beautiful church we do not care for the poor, and yet why should the two be mutually exclusive? Only because in modern America the poor are expected to get by with the very worst and nastiest of everything while the rich are supposed to get the best of everything.
What I find more though provoking in this debate is that in the United States we have assumed that if a parish is building a beautiful building (and by the way, the price tag is only $4m. We’re doing it VERY economically) then it is an expensive building built by rich people for rich people. This is not helped by some priests who do work in parishes where the building and facilities are all top notch–built and decorated to the highest standards because, quite frankly, the parish is wealthy and they can afford it. The priests live in the same manner as their wealthy parishioners–no expense is spared. This consolidates the impression that “all that fancy stuff” is for the hypocritical rich Christians–and the “real” Christians will all be poor–along with the assumption that this means they should put with the most shoddy, mediocre and nasty of everything. Why? Because they’re poor.
This is why Pope Benedict is being whacked over the head for the fine vestments he wore and the ornate stuff in his liturgy. Everyone assumes that this is the stuff for rich people who like to show off because our society is filled with rich people who like to show off and that’s what they do. What people can’t see because they are so blinded by their own greed and wealth is that the beauty and splendor, with an innocent heart, is offered to the Lord simply because it is splendid and beautiful and because he deserves the best. Because they are blinded either by their demand for riches or their demand for poverty they cannot see that something can be beautiful, good and true simply for the glory of God.
On the other extreme are those of a Franciscan mentality who not only live in poverty themselves, but project a mean-ness, a cheap, poor quality on to everything they do, as if there is some intrinsic virtue in things being poorly made from poor materials and poor craftsmanship. What virtue is there in offering the Mass with cheap, tawdry vestments, shoddy architecture, inferior sacred vessels and dilapidated buildings? Shall we be mediocre, skinflint and offer the Lord the cheapest and meanest things on principle?
That extreme is just as wrong as buying the most lavish vestments, the most ornate church and the most opulent lifestyle possible. No wonder people are suspicious of one priest trying to build a beautiful church when they have seen so many other priests living a lavish lifestyle. No wonder they fall for the lie that there is some kind of virtue in poverty for its own sake–which then excuses them of giving to God things that are inferior–and think they are being virtuous for doing so.
No. The Catholic faith is always “both-and” That’s why in a the poorest part of town we are trying to build a beautiful church. Why should the poor be given a church that is mean, shoddy and falling down and why should the rich be the only ones who offer to God a beautiful temple? It was not so in times past. In the days of our great grandfathers poor immigrants built beautiful churches for Christ while they lived in poor hovels. Now we build poor hovels for Christ while we live in McMansions. I can see a beautiful traditional church in the poor part of town. The fact that it is being built right across the street from a whorehouse is, for me, a very wonderful Catholic contradiction. Jesus, after all, welcomed the worship of the prostitute.
The fact that we are also expanding our St Vincent dePaul ministry and have bought a house to become a satellite office for Catholic charities where the poor will be able to come for counseling and advice is also part of the mission. That our old church will be transformed into a community center where we hope to offer subsidized child care for single mothers and a drop in center for old people is part of the vision too.
Christ the King came to live among and save the poorest of the poor. Our church will rise like Christ the King–showing our neighborhood that Catholics still build beautiful churches and that we do so for a reason: because our faith is beautiful and Christ is beautiful. We will build a church that will last for a thousand years because we are committed to the renewal of our world and the renewal of this community. We will build a church that is true and solid because the faith is true and solid.
The poor will see a beautiful church rising in their community–amongst the flophouses and drug dens–and know that the Catholics here chose to stay here. We didn’t sell up and move to the suburbs where the money was. We stayed here to be a lighthouse in the dark.