Friday, March 15, 2013

Why "Luxurious" Church Buildings and "Glamorous" Papal Lifestyle?

The talk of austerity, simplicity, and humility, triggered by the election of Pope Francis, has caused some people to wonder why the Catholic Church has in its possession so many costly cathedrals and basilicas. One CBC reporter in Rome also noted that the Pope’s lifestyle was anything but humble. Let me answer these accusations from both the scriptural and theological perspectives as follows:

• In the New Testament, people made a similar accusation when a woman poured expensive perfumed oil on Jesus' head. But Jesus defended her behavior because "the poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me" (Luke 14:3-9).

• In the Old Testament, God asked Moses to build the Tabernacle - a huge tent that served as the Lord’s sanctuary and the Israelites' place of worship - together with very expensive furnishings, liturgical accessories and, most of all, the legendary Ark of Covenant which was made of acacia wood and plated with pure gold inside and out. Later on, He also asked King David and his son King Solomon to build Him the majestic Jerusalem Temple. Both projects were very "luxurious" in today's standard.

• From a theological perspective, the awe-inspiring structure of a church building serves as a sign that manifests here on earth the grandeur of the Heavenly Temple. It is a door to the sacred, as it were, that opens the human eye to see the majestic dwelling place of the Lord and enables the human heart to tremble in fear in the presence of the Lord of Hosts who is “clothed with majesty and glory, robed in light as with a cloak, and spreads out the heavens like a tent” (Psalm 104:2-3).

• Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings (Revelation 17:14) who reigns as the Head of the Kingdom of God. As Jesus' Vicar here on earth, the Pope, dressed in his regal vestments and enthroned in the sedia gestatoria, is a visible image that reminds the faithful of Jesus’ kingship.

Before people point their accusatory fingers at the Church on the issue of “luxurious” church buildings and the Pope’s “glamorous” lifestyle, they are well-advised to understand the underlying scriptural and theological reasons.


  1. Edmond, did you address to comments about why Pope's lifestyle is anything but humble?

    I often can explain why our churches are 'luxuriously looking'. But I find it harder to explain clearly why Pope does not live in a more 'humble lifestyle'.

    To me, our Pope is our Shepherd on earth. I really have no issues how his lifestyle is / was. But to many others, they see the Pope as a 'representative' (for the lack of appropriate word) of Christ on earth and he is not Christ ...

    So, yes, they may be able to see the luxurious lifestyle for Jesus is appropriate, but they can't see why for the Pope ....

    1. By “luxurious lifestyle”, I was referring to how he dresses, his regal outlook (the enthronement, the vestments, etc.), where he resides, etc. In my post, I explained why such "luxuries" were necessary by introducing the concept of kingship. I know the same term - luxurious lifestyle - is often understood to include other things like the Pope's vehicles, the people hired to look after his daily needs, the furnishings in his living quarter and offices, etc. As far as these other things are concerned, I agree I haven’t said anything in my post, and thank you for pointing that out.

      I will say this: My understanding is that all recent Popes were not known to lead a lavish personal life in this regard. Many people may see the kind of vehicles a Pope uses and the sheer number of people hired to serve, assist, and protect him, as extravagances. But if one takes into consideration the nature and requirements of the Pope’s position – he is after all a head of state as well as a religious leader shepherding more than 1.2 billion believers - and the nature and complexity of his work and responsibilities, the physical and human resources employed to enable him to function efficiently can not really be seen as luxurious.