More on Beautiful Churches

More on Beautiful Churches August 6, 2010

I should have known that my post on why Catholic should build beautiful churches would register an indignant comment from someone who pointed out that we should not build beautiful churches while there are poor people in the world. That, of course, was the argument of one of the apostles. You may remember that Judas Iscariot objected to the costly ointment being poured over Jesus’ feet in worship. “The money,” he protested, “should have been given to the poor!”

Was this just because he wanted the money for himself and he was in charge of the money bag? He was certainly accused of stealing from the money bag, but even if this is so I doubt if it was his true motive. I suspect Judas Iscariot really was concerned for the poor, and I suspect his complaint was not a smokescreen for his own greed. Furthermore, I expect Judas saw Jesus’ ministry solely in social justice terms. Not only should the money from the ointment have been given to the poor, but he probably saw Jesus’ whole mission that way. Perhaps Judas could be called the first liberation theologian.

Now this is a tricky business, and I write as a well off, well educated middle class American. I am a very lucky and (in world terms) very rich person. However, I will not be fobbed off with a shallow guilt trip. There is a serious point here. Jesus did come to bring liberty to the captives, to help the poor, and to set the prisoner free. Catholics are always to have a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ We ourselves are meant to live in apostolic simplicity. However, to reduce Jesus’ life and mission simply to a peace and justice agenda to help the poor is very dangerous.

Let’s be simple: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, came to earth to redeem the world and to save poor lost sinners through the forgiveness of sins. The Church’s mission to the poor is the result of this action of love in the world. Because Jesus came to die for all humanity we see in all humanity the image of the redeemer. We see in them the one who died for them. We minister to them as we would minister to him. Indeed, in his most powerful sermon on the subject this is exactly what he said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of these little ones you did it to me, and inasmuch as you neglected them you neglected me.”

So we must labor night and day to minister to the needy of all sorts, but without Christ’s saving work we can’t really understand why it would be necessary to do so in the first place. So first things first: let us thank God for our redemption and share in that redemption so that we can then do His work in the world.

Aha! and this brings us back to the need for worship and sacraments and beauty and truth. We cannot truly experience Christ in the world without knowing his redemption and sharing his redemption through the life of the church and we cannot do that without first understanding and accepting the truth of the gospel, and we cannot truly worship him unless we worship in Spirit and in Truth and we cannot do that if we are worshiping him not in beauty, but in ugliness and unworthiness. You might even argue that work among the poor is incomplete unless first we behold the face of Christ in beautiful worship. Unless we first learn to find his face and gaze upon it in beautiful worship how can we hope to recognize his face in the face of the poor.

So what then, is ‘beautiful worship’? Some readers misunderstood my post on beautiful worship to mean extravagant worship. This is not what I meant at all. Costly and extravagant churches are not necessarily beautiful. Witness the costly monstrosity which is the new cathedral in LA. Likewise beautiful churches are not always costly. Many a village church, many a humble chapel, many a simple inner city church is beautiful but poor. What makes a beautiful church are certain principles of beauty, a certain priority of worship, a certain simplicity and dignity, a certain atmosphere of prayer.

Here are beautiful places of worship I have been to which are not first and foremost architectural and aesthetic wonders: the chapel in the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, the convent chapel where Archbishop Romero was martyred, the church of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, numerous inner city Catholic churches which were humble places of prayer. In each one, however, the priests and the faithful did their best to make their humble churches beautiful.

Last thing: there is a beautiful scene in the movie about St Damian of Molokai. When he arrives at the leper island the little church is filthy. The doors and windows are broken, the altar is covered with junk, the vestments are rat-eaten and the chalice is dented and bent. Very simply and quietly we see hi go about his very first job: the beautification of the church. He starts to sweep and clean. He mends the altar linens. He fixes the chalice. He builds the church. Then he lights the candles and says Mass.

Of course splendid buildings are nice too, and they are worthy for the reasons I expounded in yesterday’s post, but this too is really what I meant about Catholics building beautiful churches.

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