If Jesus Was Poor, Why is the Church So Ornate?

If Jesus Was Poor, Why is the Church So Ornate?

Beauty is a distinguishing feature of the Catholic Church. Throughout the centuries, artists, musicians, and architects have created beautiful works of art that adorn our churches. In many cases, the church itself is a work of art. But how do we reconcile the beauty and richness of the Church with the simple life that Jesus led?

A listener named Madison recently e-mailed host Patrick Madrid this very question, and Patrick read the letter on the air during The Patrick Madrid Show. Madison wrote:

I’ve been listening to Immaculate Heart Radio and studying the Catechism, in order to decide whether it’s the practice of faith I want to raise my child in. There are a few things I struggle with. Jesus comes across to me as a bit of a nomad hippie. He did not wear shiny clothes, He healed the diseased, and made friends with prostitutes. He also said that we should hide our faith and beware those in the synagogues who show off their devotion. Gandhi seems to have lived closer to Jesus’ life compared to the pope. How does the Church explain this? Why does it seem to put its focus so much on appearance and ritual, rather than living, dressing, and being like Jesus?

Patrick responded:

“Excellent question! Let’s look at this. First of all, the Church does put emphasis on the simplicity of Jesus and Jesus’ preference for seeking out people who needed His help – the sick, the blind, the poor, people who had demons. And so, the Church in her works of mercy does emulate Jesus in the soup kitchens, the free medical clinics, the homes for unwed mothers, the orphanages, the hospitals, and so much that goes on behind the scenes every single day, all around the world.

The Catholic Church, whether at the highest levels or at the most local levels, is engaged in doing the work of Jesus. Here I am calling attention to it, but it’s not very often that this work that goes on so constantly behind the scenes has the spotlight shown on it.

But as far as the way Jesus dressed, it’s not really necessary that we put on robes, and sandals, and wear a beard in order to be like Jesus. Because Jesus Himself said that we are in the world but not of the world. So to the extent that we’re in the world, we’re going to wear the dress of the custom of the area that we live. That’s to be expected.

Now, there’s a little bit more to this because you do pick up on something very important. And that is how Jesus condemned those who are all about outward appearances. … Two Bible verses come to mind. The first is in Matthew chapter 6, where Jesus says:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen, for you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets that they may be praised by men. Truly I say to you, they have already received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not pray like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.’

So, the context of this passage is the motive for doing these things. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Don’t pray.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Don’t go to the synagogue.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Don’t give alms.’ But He’s saying that the motivation for doing it can be corrupt if you’re doing it simply for the show. If you’re doing it to get the admiring glances, and the kind comments, and likes on Facebook, then it’s an empty gesture and whatever little thrill you might get from somebody giving you a thumbs up on Facebook – that’s it, that’s your reward.

The other passage that comes to mind is about the scribes and pharisees whom Jesus just lays into, big time, in Matthew chapter 23. He says, ‘They do all their deeds to be seen by men, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love places of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in marketplaces, and being called rabbi by men.’

So, this is the context of Jesus’ commentary there, and I daresay that this is a lesson we should all pay attention to in every generation – priests, religious, and lay people alike. We all have to be careful that we’re not doing the things we’re called to do by Jesus for the wrong reasons. It’s about the motivation behind it.

And in the case of the popes, I’m quite confident that they don’t wear the vestments that they wear at Mass for show. They’re not self-aggrandizing. You see the pope wearing the elaborate vestments and the mitre and the crosier, which are the symbols of authority that a bishop has, and the reason they wear it (which to you and me may seem opulent) is for the same reason that a police officer wears a police uniform.

Now sure, the policeman could come to work in khakis and a T-shirt if he wanted to. But there’s a particular reason that a policeman wears the badge, and he has the belt with all the different things on it. They have a certain uniform that is uniform among all the police officers. They all wear the same color and so forth. And the reason for that is that human psychology is such that we need to see that there is a certain person in a certain context who has been set apart for a particular duty.

We wear certain clothing in certain circumstances for a reason. And part of it is to show people that this person has been set apart and is now tasked with doing a particular job that not everybody can do. When you get on an airline sometime, glance into the cockpit as you get onto the airliner, and you’ll notice the guys or ladies are wearing pilot uniforms. And you want them to wear pilot uniforms! Don’t you?

You don’t want to see a guy up there in shorts and flip flops and a tank top. It might be the same guy, it might be the same pilot with the same exact training. You want to see him wearing that uniform because that uniform tells you he’s got the training, the experience, the permission to be up in the front of this plane flying 200 people at 30,000 feet. We need that.

And the same is true when it comes to the priests and the vestments at Mass. It might seem overly ornate or overly ritualistic, but there’s a reason for it. And that is that it’s conveying truth and meaning about the sacredness of their office. Not necessarily the holiness of the man himself, you can have a very sinful man who nonetheless holds a very sacred office. The duty that they have is very important, even if the person isn’t living up to that standard.

This beauty is to reflect the beauty of God, and to remind us of heavenly things. So it’s actually a good thing to have these vestments, and the ornate buildings, and these things. It’s to order our minds toward God.”

Listen to Patrick’s full response below:

The Patrick Madrid Show airs weekdays from 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. Pacific on Immaculate Heart Radio.