When I was growing up in the 80’s and the 90’s there was a trend during Lent to use pottery chalices and patens for Mass. Thankfully, it is pretty rare to see that particular liturgical abuse anymore (although I do still see — shudder! — a glass or crystal chalice).
Aside from the practical aspects that make this problematic from the priest’s and sacristan’s perspective (pottery is porous and also has the potential for staining, which makes these vessels next to impossible to fully purify), there is a problem with this theologically. Theologically, we believe that the Eucharist is the most precious thing there is — the Real Presence, the Body and Blood of Christ. The main reason that the Church uses gold and precious medals to make vessels that hold the Eucharist is for this reason. They are intended to hold the King of Kings.
However, there is another aspect to consider. A criticism often raised against the Church is that she does not live out true poverty, but rather that her bishops and pope live a life of wealth. There is an easy rebuttal to this, of course — the bishops and the pope rely on the charity of the Church and her members. Pope Francis does not own St. Peter’s – the people of the Church do. The gorgeous vestments that clerics wear are often not their personal possessions, but rather belong to the diocese or parish (or, if they do own them, they have often been gifted by the laity under their care).
That rebuttal is pretty straightforward, but there’s more to it. The beauty and the riches of the Church exist for the poor.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I had the opportunity to attend Mass at the Log Chapel on campus. When Fr. Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, first arrived in northern Indiana during the middle of the nineteenth century, he built a simple log chapel on the land that would eventually become Notre Dame.
The current log chapel is a replica of that one. On a campus with a basilica and probably somewhere around forty or more stunning chapels on campus, the Log Chapel stands out in its simplicity. Despite that, the vessels used at Mass there are gold, incense occasionally fills the small space, and beautiful vestments are worn. When attending Mass there, remember contemplating that. In the time of Fr. Sorin, when most of the churches and chapels in the frontier were log chapels, the poorest and humblest people could come and be surrounded by beauty. A family that lived in a simple sod house or log cabin could be surrounded by beauty at Mass.
Likewise, growing up just outside of Chicago, I remember being impressed by the many incredible Catholic churches dotting the city’s neighborhoods. My mother grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1950s. Back then, it was a lower middle-class neighborhood of working class Polish people. It was far from wealthy. Yet, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was stunning, and is now a shrine. This was not unusual. In these poor immigrant neighborhoods, people poured what little money they had into building beautiful churches. Their churches were the heart of their neighborhoods and the appearance of their churches was in stark contrast to their own humble homes.
One of my favorite stories in the hagiography of the saints is that of St. Lawrence. (Not the story when he is being martyred on the grill and tells his persecutors to, “Turn me over, this side is done!” although that story is an excellent one, too.) St. Lawrence was asked to hand over the riches of the Church.
What did he bring? He brought not gold or jewels, but the poor, the sick, and those who were viewed as little or nothing in the eyes of the Church. “Here are the riches of the Church!” he said. And St. Lawrence was right! So, why then don’t we give all of our money to the poor and instead spend money on vestments and vessels and churches? Because those very things are for the poor.
We are a sensory people. We need the physical world to experience things. We need to taste things, to touch things, to smell things, to hear things. All people need this, but especially the poor.
But who do I mean when I say “the poor.”
This, of course, includes those who know financial strain and poverty. But “the poor” includes more than these. St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said,
“There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
This is, perhaps, the greatest wealth of the Church. There is a reason why Catholics don’t talk endlessly of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” It’s not because it’s unimportant (in fact, there’s nothing more important in this life than that personal encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist). It’s because our faith isn’t of the personal, “me-and-God” variety.
We believe that the Church is the “mystical body” of Christ, with Jesus Christ as the head, and we the parts. Our goal in life is not to merely get ourselves to heaven — it is to help each other get there.
In fact, this work is so important that it does not cease with death. We believe that we are called to pray for our loved ones who have died, and who may be in purgatory. Likewise, we believe that the saints (including our loved ones) in heaven, pray for us on our earthly pilgrimage. This is also the reason why it is so important that all the members (and potential members!) of the Church be welcomed at Mass.
This might be a controversial statement, but I would even wager that this is why things like church nurseries and children’s liturgies of the word should be discouraged — because the Mass is the sacrifice offered by the priest with the assistance of all the members of the Church including the infants and toddlers. Who should be welcomed at Mass? The babies, the homeless, those with mental health difficulties, those who are sick, persons with disabilities, and especially those suffering from the profound poverty of loneliness.
All of the Church’s wealth belongs to all the poor — both those who are physically as well as spiritually poor. In this Lenten season especially, as we approach Easter and the welcoming home of so many Catholics (and the entrance into the Church of our dear candidates and catechumens) let us bear this in mind. The Church exists to bring the wealth of Christ’s love to the world – and it is often through our actions, our loving glances and welcoming words and open doors and pews, that God accomplishes this work.