Churches and the Church.
" Why was not this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." (John 12:5). This has been and will ever remain an argument against opulent churches. I must say that the Lord was not amused by the criticism of the Pharisees. He may have reservation against such arguments against his churches even today. In Luke 7:36, Jesus seems to appreciate the sinner woman's gesture of anointing his feet with expensive perfume. Is there a certainty that he would not question the integrity of the builders of magnificent churches?
Samuel II chapter 7 is the story of King David who wanted to build a temple fit for the Lord. Nathan the Prophet initially encouraged him. The project was however stalled. It was Solomon who built a temple in commemoration of the return of Israel from captivity. A magnificent temple was built on the very site King David had reserved for the purpose.
The Old Testament is full of descriptions of the magnificence of the temple. The temple was adorned with precious stones and gold . The nomadic tribes of Israel who lived in abject poverty however did not ever stop taking legitimate pride in their opulent temple.
St. Peter's Basilica was constructed during the reign of Pope Julius II. Those were years fraught with corruption, greed, and nepotism in the Church. The Popes who held office immediately before Julius II were more concerned with family and personal aggrandizement than the strengthening of the Church. Pope Julius shared the vision of Pope Nicolas V who had hoped to inspire the faithful to the values of the Catholic Faith. Paradoxically an opulent basilica was to become the symbol of catholicity, holiness and unity of the Church of Christ. He needed finance to fulfil the dream. He turned to the so called ' sale of indulgences'. The bold project of Pope Julius II was partially responsible for the emergence of the Protestant Reform. However, the Basilica of St. Peter stands today as a proud possession of the Catholic Church.
St. George's Basilica in Edappally was built during different times and in a different continent. The learned writers have sufficiently highlighted the ugliness of riches in contrast to the poverty of the poor whom the Basilica would accommodate during worship. I agree with them when they say that the Basilica is an eyesore. The sight and sound of sale of chicken market around the old church used to remind me of the time the Lord drove the money changers and cattle and pigeon sellers from the courtyard of the Temple (Matt 21:12 & John 2:15). I had often wished that the Lord would one day come with a broom and clean up the whole system even if it meant chasing away a few priests and community leaders. The snake cult that had developed around the same church had been a scandal that exploited the superstitions of the devotees of St. George among whom were Hindus.
The reckless private bus drivers who screech their heavily laden buses to a halt in front of the cupola of St. George send their "cleaners" to drop a few currencies in the donation box of the Church. I had often been tempted to ask them if they were offering the "protection money" to St. George or the Dragon.
The learned writers have succeeded to expose the fallout of opulence. I remember a scandal surrounding the same basilica. It was rumoured that the Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly under whose pastoral jurisdiction the parish of Edapally falls, wanted to bifurcate it. He had to face a violent opposition. Who wants to be disassociated from a rich parish and reorganize themselves into a truly worshipping community?
Counter witness is a sure result of opulence. The miniscule Catholic communities in the North coexist with Hindu communities. There are Hindu temples which generously tone down their sound system while the neighbouring churches celebrate their mass.
In America one finds a plethora of Born Again Christian Ecclesial Communities. One such community calls itself Church of the Prosperity Gospel. Dressed in expensive suits with diamond rings on all fingers and polished boots to match, their pastors sing the praises of an imaginary Jesus who wanted His followers to be prosperous; they mean "filthy rich".
Opulence breeds arrogance. Arrogance breeds disobedience. It is not uncommon that a parish priest of an opulent parish refuses to be transferred. Things become ugly when the said parish priest organizes busloads of delegates to demonstrate before the Bishop.
Can we be the Church without churches? The authors have proved that we can be. Small Christian Communities that gather in neighbourhoods in cities and villages and interior forests have proven it is the best way to be the Church.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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