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The True Wealth of the Catholic Church
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Exploring how the Church distributes its riches and cares for the poor

Chest with Gold

By Amanda Eckert

Amanda Eckert, a consecrated woman of Regnum Christi, is a graduate of Mater Ecclesiae College in Rhode Island and currently lives and works in Louisiana. Her article originally appeared in the Mater Ecclesiae Digest Spring-Summer 2012 edition.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ apostles often questioned the reasoning behind their master’s actions. During the last week of his life, while dining in the home of a leading Pharisee, an important question arose. A woman approached him with an expensive bottle of perfume, shattered it, and anointed his feet with its contents. One of his apostles came forward and asked, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days´ wages and given to the poor?" (New American Bible, Jn. 12.1-8). This question, which was posed nearly two thousand years ago, still echoes in society today. Popular impressions can exaggerate the wealth of the Catholic Church because of the grandeur of its cathedrals and its centuries-old treasures. The question then arises, “why not use these riches to aid the poor?” In answer to this question, a greater understanding of the nature and missionary activity of the Church reveals that its apparent wealth does not compromise its mission to help the needy. 

The question, “why not use these riches to aid the poor?” implies that the Church is an institution which has amassed great wealth, and that this wealth is not used to help the poor. However unfounded, these implications at least hint at what is expected from the Catholic Church – a Church that is concerned for the welfare of those in need and reaches out with charitable activity. How does the Church provide an answer to these claims? The answer lies in her very nature.  Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est says, “The Church´s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the
Pearl in Oyster
word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)” (25). The question at hand, then, touches upon the last two aspects: the celebration of the sacraments and the exercise of the ministry of charity. 

The Church erects places of worship, not as a testimony against the poor, but for the purpose of celebrating the sacraments. What at first glance seems inappropriate in the midst of the miseries of humanity is upon closer examination the most appropriate testimony of a relationship between God and man. The celebration of the sacraments is a responsibility that the Church claims by her nature. Therefore, the grandeur and magnificence of a Catholic Church is fitting and proper, because it is directed from man to God. Does not the giver of the gift want to give the best to the one he loves? This is especially true in the celebration of the Eucharist. The supposed “superfluity” of the décor in places of worship is a testimony to the love of the Christian faithful for God and their faith in his presence.  Benedict XVI says:

Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God. (Sacramentum Caritatis 41)

The beauty of a Church answers the need of every man’s heart for what is good and beautiful. Referring to the Sistine Chapel, John Paul II says that “this is a priceless cultural and universal heritage…confirmed by the countless pilgrims from every nation in the world who come to admire… God himself meets the needs of man who nurtures in his heart an ardent desire to be able to see him” (1). Even a hunched homeless man can enter a magnificent cathedral and lift his soul to God amid his poverty.       

Still, this hunched homeless man, who represents the poor and needy of the world, is not ignored by the Church. The beauty of a cathedral is not a hindrance to his aid.  Perhaps looking in from the outside, society can see the physical wealth and beauty of the Church’s treasures. Hence the accusatory question arises, “why not use these riches to aid the poor?” It fails to see the true wealth of the Church expressed in her exercise of the ministry of charity. For the Church is the source of limitless aid towards the destitute, the unfortunate, the unemployed, the handicapped. This generous outreach on the part of the Church is highly organized and institutionalized on an international scale. It is so extensive that its coordination requires the pontifical council Cor Unum for Human and Christian Development.  This council “acts as the executive instrument of the Pope for humanitarian initiatives in cases of disaster or in an integral promotion of humanity. It also promotes catechesis and information networking” (“Leader of Catholic Charities…” 1).  From war-torn lands to poverty stricken slums, from centers for single mothers to the catechetical classrooms, the Church is a vigorous testimony of tireless outreach to the disadvantaged. Refugees, immigrants, the marginalized, victims of natural disasters…all who are in need can find help from the Catholic Church. This wealth of charitable works that amounts to an operation is rooted in the Church’s very nature, as Pope Benedict states in Deus Caritas Est: “For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (25).

The true “wealth” of the Church does not lie in her buildings, but in the hearts of those who worship within them. Therefore, the Church’s cathedrals do not bear witness to an external or superfluous wealth. They testify to the inherent beauty of the faithful who join in the sacramental liturgy and are imbued with the ability to go out and help the poor. A beautiful church does not stand in opposition to charitable works, but rather, it acts as a help for the faithful to raise their minds and hearts to God. Hearts centered on God will reach out to the poor.  In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council proclaims:

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God… should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church (no. 10).

What was Jesus’ response to the apostle that questioned him “why was this not given to the poor” (Jn. 12:5)? He replies, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." (Jn. 12:8). He implies that an encounter with God is the basis for any true encounter with the poor. It is fitting that this contact with him should bear the marks of beauty and love, for nothing is too extravagant for God. Without Christ as the center and drive of apostolic initiative and activity, the Church’s works would be worth nothing. In the end, the Church remains faithful to her deepest nature through the celebration of the sacraments, where the faithful meet Christ in order to meet the poor. 

Works Cited

Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005. Print.

Sacramentum Caritatis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007.  Print.

John Paul II. Homily: Mass to Celebrate the Unveiling of the Restorations of Michelangelo’s Frescoes. Sistine Chapel, Rome. 8 April 1994.

Leader of Catholic Charities named to Cor Unum: Aid to the Church in Need President Also Joins Council. Zenit New Agency, 29 April 2007. Web.

The New American Bible. Rev. Louis  F. Hartman, gen. ed. Canada: World Bible Publishers, 1987.

Pontifical Council Cor Unum For Human and Christian Development. Vatican City: Cor Unum, 2007.

Trouve, Marianne Lorraine. The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1999.



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