A remarkable book that emerged from a chance conversation on a plane tackles the question of 'the Pope's jewels'

I have an agnostic friend who often raises questions of Catholic belief with me in a spirit of friendly scepticism. He reflects the usual assumptions of our society: that scientific discoveries have disproved the old superstitions of faith, that religious belief is the main cause of warfare, that a loving God would not allow all the pointless suffering that goes on in the world and so on.

He is a man with a social conscience who gives regular sums to charity and one of his recurring problems with the Church is that, given her founder was a poor man, her wealth and power are a scandal to those who look at her from the outside. If he had been acquainted with Cardinal Wiseman’s famous hymn, “God Bless Our Pope”, which begins with “Full in the panting heart of Rome” and includes the lines “The golden roof, the marble walls, the Vatican’s majestic halls…” it would confirm his worst prejudices.

I have just been reading a useful book which gives sensible, informative responses to all these and other questions that often crop up: What Are We Doing on Earth For Christ’s Sake? by Richard Leonard SJ, published by Paulist Press. Fr Leonard, an Australian who lectures on faith and culture, relates that the title was actually a challenging question put to him on a long-haul flight by an intelligent young lapsed Catholic. So his book “will wrestle with the profound question that emerged from a chance conversation between frequent fliers somewhere over Arizona”.

On the question of “the Pope’s jewels”, as someone once amusingly described the wealth of the Church to me, Leonard provides a brief synopsis of the Church’s history in the last 2,000 years: the early Christian communities in which everything was shared, its development into the state religion under Constantine, the worldly trappings of the medieval and Renaissance popes and the legacy of all this history for today’s Church.

Describing the way the Vatican City State functions, with its “annual running budget of approximately $325 million”, its five million tourists yearly and its 2,800 employees”, he agrees that it is “a vast enterprise and a long way from the simplicity and poverty of the first community around Jesus.”

However, Leonard also points out that the Vatican assists hundreds of the poorer among its 2,946 dioceses in the world and that in many poorer countries the Church is, outside government, “the single largest provider of healthcare, welfare and education” in that nation. He also cites the confederation of 164 Catholic relief agencies in 200 countries among the many hundreds of relief and service organisations sponsored or promoted by the Church, which “serve many millions of people a year, regardless of their religious, social or economic backgrounds”.

Leonard also argues that selling the Vatican’s artistic treasures (and trying to prise Michelangelo’s paintings off the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), though good for temporary public relations for the Vatican, would simply put them in the hands of private buyers, probably from China – so that they would no longer be enjoyed by the general public or even be of real benefit the poor.

All this is worth pointing out to those who are scandalised by what they regard as an over-rich institution. But what Fr Leonard doesn’t say, and which came into my own mind when my agnostic friend again expostulated recently against the conspicuous grandeur of a particular church, remarking “The Protestant in me revolts against displays of wealth, especially in churches … where they detract from the message and where one knows that the money could have been better spent”, is that this very theme is played out dramatically in the Gospel scene described by St John, where Mary of Bethany breaks a jar of costly nard, pours it over Jesus’s feet and then dries them with her hair.

In other words, when we imitate the example of Mary’s self-sacrificial act of adoration, when we too offer God the tribute of what is most precious and worthy in our possession– and this can include the impulse to build a beautiful church – we are performing an act of great love – and the Latin for “love” is caritas, or “charity”.