A safe place for things of beauty

By Linda Zahorik | September 12, 2013

As you listen to this Sunday’s Gospel, consider how the prodigal son was outfitted in the best of clothing and given the finest of food and drink. Our common sense tells us that he did not deserve it. His father could have put the money to greater good, rather than appearing to reward the son in his errant ways.

Look also, around your worship space. Does your church have mosaic work, elaborate paintings or carefully carved statues? Consider the beauty of our mother church, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, or our spiritual seat, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Each contains articles of unspeakable beauty and, in the case of St. Peter’s, ancient pieces of art that are irreplaceable in their beauty and worth. All of that beauty is lavished upon us, who like the prodigal son are errant in our ways.

There are those among us who feel this is wrong. They ask, “If we say we are a church of the poor, then are we not in a time in history where we should sell our art, our gold vessels and finery and use that money for the poor?”

First, each ancient document, each stained glass window, each work of art the Catholic Church holds in trust, is part of a 2,000- year-old tradition that helps us to understand who God is in our lives, and what he is calling us to do. The beauty of the church is poured out on us in equal measure. He who has amassed millions of dollars, and one who lives on the street, can both walk into a church and be moved by the beauty. As they connect with the art they are also connecting with the history of the church as it is revealed in pictures, statues, vestments and windows. Beauty carries with it a spirit of transformation, it evokes from us a desire to return to God, and in that reconciliation find our own holiness and worth.

To dispose of the great treasures of the church could indeed aid the poor, perhaps for a few years, more likely for a few months. Held in the keeping of the church, our treasures remain safe to sustain generation upon generation. An abundance of money is not the answer to poverty.  The needs of the poor can only be met when those of us who are in a position to do something have been transformed by the mystery and beauty of the Gospel.

Secondly, to observers it may seem that we as Catholics are spending too much money on churches or are pretentious in our use of gold-plated vessels for the altar. After all God doesn’t need fancy surroundings to be present to us. Did he not have his own son born in a cattle barn?  The beauty we express in outward signs within church and within our liturgy are not offered because God needs it, rather they are a representation of what we believe. There is no way our human hands can ever construct a building which is majestic enough to contain God’s presence, or vessels that are precious enough to hold his body and blood. But deep within us is the longing, the desire, the need to offer to God the best we have. Within the church building is a place where our mind, body and soul can rest in the mysteriously beautiful, divine sacred.

The church must always serve as a good custodian of her monies and acquisitions; but let us remember as well, that Jesus, in his encounter with Mary Magdalene and her oils of precious worth, recognized the holiness of and need for beauty in one’s life.

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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