It's a criticism levelled by many. It's one I've levelled in the past unthinkingly. And yet I distinctly remember as a child being struck by the beauty and the holiness of the Churches my mother used to take me to as a child living in Spain. It stayed with me. And in some way, it drew me back.
There is something about the huge-ness, the awe-someness, the intrigue and the magnetism of a Cathedral. And thankfully, there are those who defend the building of same as something pleasing and not dis-pleasing to God:
One of my cousins is a Capuchin priest. He has worked very closely with the very poor and disadvantaged for decades, and he bristles when people talk about “frivolous beauty” or “liturgical pomp”, and when they declare that beautiful things should be stripped down and sold for the poor. “You help the poor by being with them, living and working with them; being one with them, because one of the biggest needs of the poor is the reception of a simple message: ‘You’re as important as anyone; you are loved and loveable.’ You don’t send that message by making the world uglier for them.”
Sell everything in a church, strip it down and you buy some temporary assistance; then the people who sold all that sinful, frivolous beauty go back home, feeling pretty good about themselves and all the ‘help’ they gave to ‘the poor.’ But when the money runs out — and my cousin says money running out is one of the few things you can bank on — then for the poor who remain, “it’s back to business as usual, but with nothing beautiful for them, anywhere.”
My cousin is a man with a great deal of common sense and compassion; living where and how he has lived, he needs both; he is by no means anyone’s idea of a “conservative” but he feels strongly that comfortable, wealthy people with generous instincts mostly have no idea what the poor “need” and that the poor have just as much right (and expectation) to enjoy the consolation and spiritual uplift of a beautiful church as anyone else. Moreover, struggling people don’t want everyday things like straw baskets to be used at communion, because they use everyday things, every day. At Mass, Jesus deserves beauty and they want to engage him in beauty.
His point is valid. I don’t know that I really understood the power of beautiful surroundings, created with the intention of praising and glorifying God, until I visited Rome and considered that the beauty making me gasp on every corner was created, painted, tiled, built by people who were very likely what we call “the poor” today — artisans and craftsmen who worked with their hands; day laborers who lifted and pulled and hammered and sawed. I remember standing back from the Chiesa Nuova and Gesu Church — churches built (respectively) by Saint Philip Neri and by Jesuits, both of whom knew something about living with and for the poor — and contemplating the sense of satisfaction and wonder that these ordinary, struggling people must have felt when the buildings were finished: look what we have done; look what we have made to the glory of God; we have a share in this; we worship here; this would not have been made, if not for us.
In no other aspect of our lives do we demand a reason for beauty or question its purpose. We accept and appreciate beautiful art, music, or a sunset for what it is and allow it to uplift us. For some reason beauty is not suspect except when found in the Church. Then it becomes a waste of money, gaudy excess, and idolatry. Suddenly we are expected to ban beauty in His own house when He Himself made us with this desire to create and appreciate beauty? How odd.
And this argument against ritual, calling it meaningless pomp and circumstance. Ritual gives order and is rarely meaningless. You can find simple examples of ritual even in the most progressive evangelical home church which may open and close with a prayer each Sunday. And surely Catholics do not have the monopoly of liturgical ritual. Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists all have ritual in their worship practices yet it’s only Catholic liturgy most freely criticized and questioned for its usefulness. Again, how odd.
One might suspect the real prejudice is with Catholicism and not general beauty or ritual in liturgy.
Some months ago, the wife and I took our sons and the oldest's girlfriend to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (the picture to the right taken as we were leaving). It was glorious (click on the link to see an incredible virtual tour).
At one point, one of my sons made mention of the amount of money it took to build such a structure. I didn't have a decent ready-made answer for him at the time in defense.
Perhaps with this post, I now do.