On this feast of the Epiphany, as the celebration of Christmas draws to a close, I want to consider again the gifts with which the Magi, the three wise men, greeted the newborn King in the stable. The gold and frankincense, foreshadowed by the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading (Is. 60:1-6), are gifts fit for a king. Myrrh was a very expensive spice (gum resin) used for embalming the bodies of kings and nobility.
Since the Reformation there has been a desacralization and secularization of life in the West. The divorce of the spiritual from the material that this entails is deadly to the sacramental and incarnational essence of Christianity. Expressing devotion to God in Christ through offering the best we can - materially and artistically as well as spiritually - has been decried. The altars were stripped, statues and shrines destroyed. In Scotland, I read, where the established church is Presbyterian, Christmas, which colorfully and joyfully celebrates the union of divine and human in the infant Jesus, was outlawed even as late as 1958). Churches became plain, unadorned, colorless, and even dour.
Modern day secularists inherited this Protestant spirit. One recently expressed her revulsion upon visiting the Vatican “which is so wealthy and covered in gold, and you can imagine the pope sitting in robes being fed food by nuns whilst outside we saw so many hungry families begging.” The idea that the Vatican’s wealth should be sold off and the proceeds given to the poor is expressed in the very 1960s novel and film, “Shoes of a Fisherman.” In fact, popes, most recently Benedict XV at the end of World War I, have twice emptied the Vatican’s treasury and given the assets to the poor.
There are several aspects of a full answer to the Protestant (and now atheist) sensibility expressed in this visceral response that I have never heard even the poorest Catholic utter. But first we should note its antiquity, recorded first in John’s Gospel account of Judas Iscariot’s complaint about Mary, sister of Lazarus, who anointed Jesus, days before his death and burial, with an ointment of nard worth a year’s wages. Judas objected that the jar of ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus answers, “Let her keep it for the day of my burial.” Like the myrrh brought by the learned men of the East, it is something fit for the burial of a King. In both cases - the myrrh and the nard - the generous giving is an act of faith in face of the divine.
Judas’s response reflects not his concern for the poor but his own loss of faith in the divinity of Jesus and his decision to give him up for money, which, according to John’s account, he was already stealing from the disciples’ money box (Jn 12:1-8). We are reminded here, not that secularists are dishonest in this way, but that, as all the research shows, they consistently and by all measures show less concern for the poor through giving of their own time, treasure, and talent than the observantly religious (Brooks, 2007).
We should note here that no other organization on earth does more for the poor than the Catholic Church with its worldwide network of charitable activities.
Consider, in our own day, the men and women of Christian religious communities who serve the people of Southern Sudan (Solidarity with Southern Sudan, 2010; Kristof, 2010a, 2010b). Much charitable activity is organized through dioceses and parishes—AIDS ministries, prison ministries, food pantries, and the like, as well as in the form of contributions to larger efforts like Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and other charitable activities of all kinds of Christian communions across the globe.
From its earliest days, the Church understood charity as one of its essential organized activities, along with administering the sacraments and proclaiming the Word (Benedict XVI, 2006). Charity was the responsibility of each individual member and of the entire ecclesial community at every level. From the original group of seven deacons, the diakonia, the well-ordered love of neighbor has been understood as involving both concrete and spiritual service, corporal and spiritual works of mercy (Benedict XVI, 2006). Through its institutions and individuals, both saints and sinners, the Church has been engaged in helping the poor and downtrodden. It is a record that extends through the work of deacons, monasteries, dioceses, parishes, to the social service organizations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the development of modern social work.
But let’s look at the Vatican and the image of the pope being brought food by nuns. Since the nuns have voluntarily taken a vow of poverty and the pope is a man in his mid-eighties, we may doubt that even if he made time to cook his own food, the savings would feed even a handful of poor people. Popes are paid three coins a year and these are buried with them. When Pope John Paul II died, he left behind no personal possessions but a hairbrush, toothbrush, and pen. Even the Vatican bureaucracy, numbering some two thousand, is extremely modest for an organization with some 1.2 billion members. The U.S. federal bureaucracy, by contrast, numbers some four and a half million.
The Vatican also houses some the world’s great works of art, created over centuries and maintained for the glory of God as the patrimony of the whole Church. The great cathedrals and churches of the world, Chartres and Notre Dame and Cologne, as well as of Rome, Florence, and Venice, are themselves expressions of human energy, creativity, aspiration, and devotion to God. These magnificent works of art and architecture not only reflect the faith of Catholic Christians, of poor craftsmen and laborers over generations and centuries; they also belong to the poor, who are the treasure of the Church as St. Lawrence told those who sought to expropriate the Church’s riches in an earlier period. Poor people as well as noble patrons contributed their time, treasure, and talent to build this patrimony. The great works of art, architecture, and music to which Catholic Christianity gave rise are a priceless and unparalleled cultural treasure. They are not merely museum pieces but also just and appropriate ways for humans to glorify God.
Could there be a greater insult to the poor of today and of earlier times than to propose that this great inheritance should be cashed out and turned into welfare benefits?
Brooks, A.C. (2006). Who really cares: The surprising truth about compassionate conservatism: America’s charity divide—Who gives, who doesn’t, and why it matters. New York: Basic Books.
Kristof, N.D. (2010a, April 18). A Church Mary can love. New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/opinion/18kristof.html?hp ).
Kristof, N.D. (2010b, May 1). Who can mock this Church? New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/opinion/02kristof.html
Solidarity with Southern Sudan (2010). http://www.solidarityssudan.org/whoweare.html.