The Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks the site of Our Lord’s birth (By Berthold Werner, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons)
Catholic churches are magnificent not for man, but for the God-Man Jesus Christ.
Some time ago Pope Francis turned up to celebrate Mass wearing vestments that were modernistic, tie-dye looking affairs. Catholics with taste for finer things tut-tutted and have spoken in generally disapproving ways of the pope’s sartorial taste or lack of it.
They preferred Pope Benedict, who seemed to like raiding the Vatican’s vestment cupboards for some of the fancier outfits, hats and shoes.
We might well roll our eyes in dismay. Surely we have more pressing concerns than what vestments the popes happen to wear?
Yes of course, these things are not important, or at least they’re not that important. However, they say clothes make the man, and what we wear does indicate what we think about ourselves, our Church, our faith and our liturgy.
In this sense the different style of pontifical haberdashery indicates something else. If there is a clash in their chasubles and miters there is also a clash in their choices and ministries.
You could call this the clash between the palace and the stable. What clash? Simply this: Jesus Christ the Son of God came into the world as the seeming son of a simple working class family. He was born in a stable. From the beginning he was an itinerant — a migrant. He was poor and lowly and had no place to rest his head. It would seem to be a no-brainer therefore that his followers should be similarly simple and poor. This is the life adopted by the first Christians, then by the first monks, then by the friars of the different orders. It is a worthy and noble tradition. It is the tradition of the stable.
However, Jesus Christ was not only a humble carpenter and a poor itinerant preacher. He is now risen, ascended and glorified. He has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Before him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. He is the Lord of Glory. To worship King Christ is to enter into his courts with praise. To worship King Christ is to bow before the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
This is why Catholic churches and cathedrals were grand and beautiful. They were magnificent not for man, but for the God-Man Jesus Christ. This is why Catholic priests wear fine vestments and use gold and silver vessels on the altar. This is why we spend time and money to worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness. It is not to magnify a man, but to magnify the Lord, and if we forget this, then we are forgetting not only a valuable part of our Catholic tradition, but a valuable part of the gospel itself.’
On the other hand, if too much time, money and attention is spent on the fine vestments, grand architecture and sumptuous music and art, then we are in danger of forgetting the other side of the coin: Jesus the Man of Nazareth. It is necessary to remember the poor, and Pope Francis’ emphasis is a vital part of the proclamation of the gospel.
However, in my opinion, the Catholic Church is not really in danger of forgetting the poor or in danger of neglecting Jesus the poor man of Nazareth. In our age, the Catholic Church is in danger of neglecting King Christ — the Lord of Glory. We’ve got plenty of peace and justice Catholics reminding us of our responsibility to the poor, and that’s a good thing. We’ve also got plenty of liberal theologians who would like to make Jesus into no more than an attractive wandering preacher with an agenda — a kind of proto-Gandhi.
The world needs an authentic witness through an emphasis on the poor and needy, but it also needs to be reminded of Christ the King of Glory. That’s why I like Pope Francis’ emphasis on simplicity, but in that rightful emphasis I don’t want to forget the power and glory of Christ the King and the splendid worship we offer him.
Critics of the finery, the Baroque, the splendor and the glory will argue that it gives the wrong witness. Nonsense. We must take time to explain the reason for the witness and we must also make sure (as Pope Benedict did and John Paul did before him) that the Pope is always concerned with the poor and leads the church in her ministry to the poor.
How do we do both? I think it’s easy. In our work in the world we minister to the poor. We work for peace and justice. We roll up our sleeves and get busy with the corporal works of mercy. But in the liturgy we do all we can to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness and to magnify his name with all the muster and magnitude of the art, architecture, music and literature of the liturgy.
As the vicar of Christ therefore, the Pope must attempt to solve the problem of the palace and the stable. He must, in his own ministry, show the humility and poverty of Jesus of Nazareth, but in the liturgy he should reveal forth the power and the glory of Christ the King of Glory.