I’ve been home from our trip to the Mediterranean for a little over a week. I’m back on California time doing California things (today Muri and I went to lunch at the Corner Bakery). And this old brain is starting to put in perspective the sights we saw. Perhaps nothing stirred me more than the churches, cathedrals and basilicas, particularly if you allow me to count the Sistine Chapel. While the duration of our trip didn’t allow us to tour many museums, we did get a whirlwind of the Vatican Museum, which holds an amazing collection of art, both secular and sacred. Walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, I had a short but interesting philosophical discussion with my friend Ron. Essentially what he said was that he’s bothered by the vast wealth the Church possesses and that makes it hard for him to appreciate the art and antiquities. I suggested that most of this was acquired in the distant past not by the modern church but that belies the fact that nearly €30,000,000 a year in admissions to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is being used to finish the cathedral instead of help the poor. And that outside the lovely Church of Santa Croce in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce, there were countless poor selling tchotchkes or outright begging. My friend. Ralph, back home in Socal had the same thoughts. It would be a lot easier for me to appreciate the art if it were in a library or public museum, he said. Looking online, I see there many people who question whether the Church should have such wealth when people are starving. There’s a particularly stimulating discussion on AskaCatholic.com, here.
What do I think? I think that the Church is preserving art and antiquities that have value far beyond their financial worth. As a less-than-attentive history student, I always assumed that the Colosseum and Roman Forum were ruins because the building simply fell down. The truth is, the buildings were essentially used as a marble quarry for newer buildings (many in the Vatican). That’s what happens when commerce manages antiquities. What would happen if the Vatican decided to sell off its wealth? How much of it would survive or end up in private collections, away from the eyes of the public? What history would be lost forever? Essentially, most of these treasures are public, accessible to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. And whether it’s because of the religious significance or the sheer beauty and historical value, the churches, cathedrals and basilicas are certainly inspiring, even to an old spiritual-but-not-religious curmudgeon, and the world certainly needs inspiration. On a more philosophical note, I’m inclined to agree with Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian sorcerer of Carlos Casteneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, who said there will always be poor people, that poverty is part of the human condition. I’m reminded that Jesus said essentially the same thing to someone when they objected to an admirer pouring expensive perfumed oil on his feet. Does mentioning Don Juan and Jesus is the same paragraph prove that I’m a heathen? Anyway, every form of governance and human institution, from conservative capitalism to communism claims to be good for the poor, yet from each there has emerged an elite and affluent class. If one of those is going to take care of the Vatican treasures, it might as well be the Catholic Church.
So, if you made it through all this philosophy, you get a reward, a slide show of some of my favorite churches from our trip. Enjoy.