Thank you for your patience. In the two weeks I was “gone,” I traveled to Italy with a pilgrimage group lead by Fr. Dan Guenther of Cherokee, Iowa. While there, a bus took us to many Catholic sites (and other sites) in Italy in the cities of Venice, Padua, Florence, Assisi, Siena, Rome, Pompeii, and Sorento. The sites included the magnificent Basilicas of St. Mark, St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran, among others. In addition, we saw the famous artwork of Michelangelo in Florence and Rome. The photograph accompanying this post is of the interior of the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museum) adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where there are many such valuable treasures.
All of the famous artwork and ornate structures in these basilicas and other buildings reminded me the common complaint that the Catholic Church owns all of this and doesn’t pay enough attention to the poor. Indeed Scripture is full of verses and stories that tell us how very important it is that we help the poor and share our wealth. Jesus said this: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a man who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God." (Mat 19:24). Jesus also told the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man refused to help a poor man (Lazarus) who lay begging at his door while on earth. Upon the rich man’s death, he was refused entrance into heaven and lay in torment in the netherworld while Lazarus was seen by the side of Abraham in God’s Kingdom.
But also in Scripture, there is also story of the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfumed ointment contained in an alabaster jar (e.g., John 12:1-8). This was one time when honor and glory for Jesus took precedence over help for the poor. Responding to indignation from his disciples (because the ointment was expensive), while approving of the woman’s act, Jesus said this: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It seems clear to me that honor and glory for God is at least on equal footing with helping the poor. The Catholic Church commissioned the artists to sculpt statues (e.g., statues of David, Moses, and the Pieta) or create beautiful paintings (the Sistine Chapel) and has been the caretaker of these for centuries. They, of course, are priceless treasures that people of all religious stripes have been enjoying for years. They give glory and honor to God and cannot be liquidated and sold on the world market for what they are worth.
People may also cite the use of golden vessels for chalices, ciboria, tabernacles, and the like. These vessels also give glory and honor to God because they are used to contain the consecrated bread and wine during and outside of Mass. The richest material on earth is quite an appropriate material for such a function because we are talking about the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord and Savior.
Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. You know, I experienced this in Rome as well. We encountered the homeless asleep under blankets in the corridor leading from the parking garage to to St. Peter’s Square early one morning. And, yes, there was human waste on the floor and yes, the stench was awful. Yes, the poor will always be with us and they will be all around us, even in the corridor leading to one of the most revered places on earth. So, let us continue to give glory and praise to God, but let us not forget the poor. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Amen.