I have heard the sentiment more often than I care to admit. It's always some variation of "If the Vatican really wanted to help the poor, it would sell off its riches!" The riches, I heard from a friend just this weekend, is hidden in the basement of the Vatican, and is in the form of stacks of ingots -- not precious, unsellable art.
Don't ever mistake me for a lover of the way the Vatican operates, but I have serious doubts that that bunch could bank their way out of a paper bank roll. Just a few days ago, even Pope Francis hinted that changes to the Vatican, including its Bank (the "Institute for the Works of Religion," abbreviated IOR in Italian) needed a makeover.
(Reuters) - Pope Francis has indicated for the first time that he may make changes to the Vatican's scandal-ridden bank as part of a broad review of the Holy See's troubled administration.
Before Francis was elected last month, many of the cardinals who went on to choose him expressed concern about the harm done to the Church's image by three decades of scandals at the bank, which Italian magistrates are now investigating for money laundering. (my italics)I would not be surprised that the IOR has been involved with embarrassing and costly dealings, including money laundering, embezzlement and funding dubious projects. But given the ham-handed way the bank has embarrassed itself for decades, I doubt that it is sitting on vast stores of gold.
What the Vatican does have is art. And history. And piety. Usually, all three at once. Take Michelangelo's Pieta, completed in 1499. It is a breathtaking piece of art, a heart-stopping work of piety and, at over 500 years old, a gem of history. What is it worth? $1 million? $10 million? $100 million? Who would the Vatican sell it to without appearing to debase the patrimony of every Catholic? Donald Trump? T. Boone Pickens? Microsoft? Will the buyer sell tickets for people to see their new acquisition? Will they stash it in a private gallery? Will they license its image for t-shirts, coffee mugs and bikini bottoms? Items like the Pieta are priceless. Literally. There is no price at which the Vatican could or should sell it.
And that is just one marvelous piece!
What about the Henry VIII's bull of excommunication? What would that fetch on then open market? What about the silver mask adorning the face of Pius X? Can't we melt that down and sell it to aid the poor? What about th Shroud of Turin. What a great beach blanket it would make!
A great deal of the Vatican's "wealth" is in such illiquid assets. Even if they could be sold off, would that be wise? The art of the Vatican, and that of every local parish church, is a testament to the love of parishioners for their church. People built their churches a nickel and a dollar at a time. To remove precious statuary and sacramental vessels is more than a futile act against the Church. It is a slap in the face of the millions of ordinary people who sacrificed to adorn their places of worship -- to make them priceless and ageless and beautiful forever.
Besides. Stripping churches to their masonry would only feed people for a few years. And then what? What would be left to speak to the senses of future worshipers? What would inspire them to think outside of themselves? Should future generations of the faithful be satisfied to worship in someone's basement? Or in a coffee shop? Even Jesus worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple, one of the most beautiful buildings of all time.
I would love it if solving the problem of world poverty was just a matter of melting down some silver candlesticks. Or dumping a saint's skull from a golden reliquary and selling it the highest bidder. But I am a realist. While Jesus might have thought that a cosmic cataclysm was right around the corner, the rest of us, having waited for two thousands years, aren't so sure. We need a Church for the long haul. One that inspires painters, musicians and dramatists to tell and to retell its story. And given the human attraction to shiny objects, that means a certain expense to produce and to maintain those items.
True, we should be careful about the way we use our resources. The inside of the cup (piety, love, prayer) should require the same attention as does the outside (ornament, vestment, material). But to imagine that we will flock to a Church that is dull, drab and uninteresting, one that fails to awe us and to bring us to our knees, is to misunderstand the limitations of the limited minds and hearts of human beings. Who, after all, are more than happy to crown themselves kings and queens of Creation.
Let the Pieta, and all the other art, linger on their pedestals. And let us draw meaning and transcendence from them until the sights and sounds of another world tears away their grasp.