I ran into this one just the other night. A disgruntled former Catholic (Have you ever met a gruntled former Catholic?) hit me with the comment “all the Church cares about is money.” This is another myth that might be true if you eliminate the word “all”. Of course the Church cares about money. But it’s not “all” the Church cares about. It’s not even at the top of the list of the Church’s concerns.
But, let’s get real. There are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. It takes a lot of money to provide all those people with places to worship. There are buildings to maintain and salaries to be paid. Plus, even the Church’s enemies acknowledge that the Catholic Church does a massive amount of good in the world. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide shelter for the homeless all over the world, just as Jesus told us to do. All these things take money and a lot of it.
There is a school of thought that the Church won’t allow priests to be married because she doesn’t want to be financially responsible for all those wives and children. We discussed the actual reasons in an earlier post, but money is a part of. In parishes with more than one priest, all of them live comfortably in a single rectory. If you add wives and children to the mix, suddenly you’re going to need multiple rectories in a parish. Yes, that’s a big expense. Protestant church can handle married clergy because 1. They usually have only one minister at a given church. 2. Ministers wives often provide unpaid service as office managers, music ministers and Sunday school teachers. 3. Most protestant denominations are much more aggressive than the Catholic Church in encouraging their members to tithe. The big C Catholic Church may have a lot of money but on a local level, the neighborhood Methodist church probably has a bigger budget than the Catholic parish down the street.
Well, what about all the great works of art that are owned by the Church? Shouldn’t she sell them to raise money to feed the poor? No, probably not. Among other things, the Catholic Church excels in preserving the arts for future generations. In times of war, churches are usually left alone. Even during World War I and II, the great masterpieces in the Vatican were untouched.
You also have to remember that the Church has always been a patron of the arts. Many of the world’s masterpieces were either commissioned by the Church, or they were given to the Church by the artists or their benefactors. I’m sure that little remodeling job that Michelangelo did on the Sistine Chapel in the 16th Century kept him in paint and brushes for a long time.
OK, how about this? “Why do the Catholics build such elaborate churches and cathedrals. Can’t you worship God in less fancy digs?” That’s a good question. Why do we build these magnificent houses of worship when we could (and sometimes do) say mass in much more ordinary venues? The best answer I can give to that question is, “How can we give God less than our best?”
Here’s a little personal story. My church, Saint John Nepomuk in Saint Louis, was built by the parishioners, low-income immigrants from Bohemia, in 1870. It was spectacular! The parishioners themselves did most of the work and they were very proud of what they had accomplished, as well they should have been. The residents of the city were justifiably impressed at what the hard-working immigrants had done.
Sadly, in 1896, just 26 years later, a tornado blew through the neighborhood and flattened their beautiful church. Undaunted, they began, the very next day, to rebuild. Again, the parishioners did most of the work, many of them taking time off their jobs for six months to offer their time and talent. That church remains today.
I suppose the Bohemians of South Saint Louis could have continued to worship in the original log cabin church that was built in 1855 and used the money to feed the poor. But they were the poor! They gave everything they had to build a suitable house for God. Our faith community, over the last 117 years has given much more support to the local community than the cost of our church.
Finally, “what about the fancy vestments that Catholic clergy wear? Most protestant ministers seem to do ok in just a suit and tie.” This is an age-old tradition of the Church. The best answer I can give to that is watch television over the next few days. The Church will install a new Pope, Pope Francis I. The pomp and ceremony you see will be amazing! This man is the leader of over 1.2 billion Catholics and the successor to Saint Peter. It would be unseemly for him to be installed in a hoodie and jeans. There’s a lot of ceremony attached to his job and he wears clothing that fits his position.
Obviously, as you get closer to the local level, bishops’ outfits are less ornate than the Pope’s and priests’ and deacons’ vestments are even less. The garb we wear for daily mass is simpler than what we wear on Sundays and we usually have some special things we wear for days like Christmas and Easter.
Yes, it can be flashy. Yes, it can be ostentatious. But how can we do any less when we gather to praise and worship the God who has given us everything. I’m just sayin’. Maybe some of our protestant brothers could stand to dress up a bit. 🙂