I was struck recently by a fascinating observation made by Bishop Mark Davies during the address he gave at the Evangelium Conference. Bishop Mark was speaking to us about the life of St. John Vianney, the Cure D’Ars, that wonderful simple priest whose profound holiness transformed his community and whose gifts in the confessional led to thousands of souls being saved. He has always been a popular saint. His biography is found here.
The thing that really hit home in Bishop Mark’s talk was his observation about how the Cure D’Ars treated buildings and possessions in life. St. John Vianney’s home, pictured above, was profoundly humble. He did not lavish comforts on himself then but sacrificed much, giving to the poor and living a life of simple austerity. However he would always ensure that the Church buildings he inhabited were lavish and beautiful in order to be a fitting house for Jesus. St. John Vianney wanted a poor house for himself but a resplendent house for Jesus.
It was a point the Anglo-Catholic founders, inspired by Newman prior to his conversion, also made when they went to the slums of England and built churches of great beauty there to lift hearts and minds to God and to give the poor a building and faith to be proud of. This was vision that understood the feeding of the poor is as much to do with hungry souls as hungry bellies!
How different to recent times! For during the 20th Century, the most affluent mankind has ever known, a generation of Christians have built and furnished lavish houses for themselves, with all the mod cons, but have perversely build stark, desolate concrete blocks for Jesus. Church architecture has been stark and the parish often run on the contribution of pennies and not pounds. What does this tell us about where treasure has truly been stored? Is it not a true litmus test of the level of faith for believers?
I often hear people defend impoverished Church architecture and tired stark buildings in need of a paint as a marvellous sign of simplicity. But I wonder. I wonder. Ask yourself this question. If you had the resources then what sort of home would you build for your children? A stark cold one or something better to demonstrate the depth of your love? Do our church buildings say something about our level of faith? Do our own homes say something about our level of charity? It is an uncomfortable thought for me as I survey my own home crammed full as it is with excess. Did I really need all that I purchased? What of my own giving both to the poor and to the work of the Church?
Pope Francis has been very good at prodding our consciences when it comes to the poor and asking us to consider our own response. And part of that process must be to ask where our wealth is currently stored and to consider if it might be better stored elsewhere? What does our monthly statement reveal about us? A love of God and neighbour or a love of the opera, gardening and ultimately self? Tough words but we do well to ponder them. For most every Saint I can think of founded and built magnificent Churches but lived in true poverty themselves.
Ok let us end with a series of pictures. The first is that kitchen at Ars:
The next is the house of worship at Ars.
Now we can look at a picture of a modern kitchen.
And finally let us consider an example of modern Church architecture
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I could not agree more as I analyse this data. Four photographs that speak powerfully about the decline in faith over the last century. Let us consider how to reverse this trend.