Friday, 4 January 2008

Vestments of the Holy Father

Recently there has been much talk in the media and the blogs about the fine vestments the Holy Father wore for the Christmas and New Year period. It seems that they have been very well received by most people. However as we would expect we also hear the usual platitudes about how this goes against the poverty of Christ, and the money should rather be spent on the poor.

I could waffle and rabbit on for ever in answering these tiresome and shallow arguments. However Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written an excellent post in his blog which counters them far better than I could do, so I shall spare you some of my strident opining. But there are a few additional comments I could make.

First of all, what not many people know is the ugly modern vestments designed to look like prison wear and sackcloth are just as expensive, if not more costly than fine traditional ones. Go and look at any church catalogue and you will see for yourself. Until recently for each papal mass whole new sets of modern vestments with matching socks and cuffs were commissioned at great expense, and hardly has a set been used twice. In reusing fine old vestments, Benedict is saving money!

Secondly, it is often forgotten that the beauty and magnificence of churches, the sumptuous vestments and liturgy, and the beautiful music exists not just to glorify God but for the benefit of the faithful both rich and poor. In the church beauty is made democratic and egalitarian, for people of all social classes and nationalities to see and hear. In my church the Birmingham Oratory we sing week in and week out beautiful music that at a concert of the same standard you would have to pay at least £10 for admission. With the church, it is free!

First Vespers of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory
Photo: Matthew Doyle

Thirdly, those who say that beauty alienates and scandalises the poor clearly have not had real contact with the poor. What really scandalises and causes resentment among them is not costly vestments and churches but the affluent lifestyle of many of the clergy. This is not to denigrate the many good priests and religious who have sacrificed successful careers and great wealth to follow the Good Shepherd. But it should be borne in mind that it is a very bad example for clergy to wear sackcloth vestments and yet live in well appointed presbyteries. Fr. Louis Bouyer describes this as ‘the poverty of the Pharisees.’ (cf. The Decomposition of Catholicism).

With all this mind, let us look forward to more magnificence in future papal liturgies: in this age of blogging and mass media it will certainly create a powerful message. And I’m sure that it will also lead to fairly substantial savings in the Vatican finances.


Anonymous said...

You are right to point out the self-indulgent bachelor comforts of the clergy in relation to liturgical minimalism. Have you noticed that many of the clerical bloggers are constantly going away on foreign holidays or having uneasy social celebrations with cigars? Not much evidence of the poor Christ or the Cure d'Ars there!

In the past splendid liturgy and vestments were seen as a way of glorifying God and making reparation for the way Christ was treated on earth. For the poor, who then had little visual stimulous, the Church gave a glimpse of heaven. Saints like St Ignatius Loyola and St Philip Neri used religious drama and music to attract people to worship. It is good to see these fine things returning.

For too long the drabness of people's homes have been reflected in the drabness of church interiors. Beauty is part of transcendence and this is clearly one of the Holy Father's prerogatives.

The main difference between past and present is that we now have television to bring colour in people's homes and in comparison with that good liturgy, however splendid, has less force than it did. But the Holy Father regularly appears on it and magnificence is there for all to see on a magnified scale.

Fr PF said...

"with matching socks" -???