Now that the months-long saga of a standoff between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta seems to have reached a climax, with the storied chivalric order pledging “to concentrate fully on the enormous challenges in humanitarian diplomacy and the work on the ground,” it’s time to stand back and ask what to make of it all.
Beyond the fine points over the nature of sovereignty, the limits of
papal authority, and so on, perhaps one key lesson is this: Just how
determined Pope Francis can be when he wants reform, especially when
it’s a question of his core vision of a “poor Church for the poor.”
It’s clear by now that this pope doesn’t like the trappings and
insignia of a Church built on power and wealth, including medieval
baubles that seem to belong to a bygone time. The Knights of Malta
epitomize these vestiges of the past in their very name, organizational
structure, and in their plumed and medalled regalia and aristocratic
In other words, perhaps Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta were
always on a collision course, no matter what the triggering incident
turned out to be.
Now, the “Francis effect” has swept through their marbled halls and,
in a rare press conference on February 2, surviving members of the
Knights’ Supreme Council dressed in simple suits and were keen to
emphasize “a new phase in the life of the order,” since the resignation
of the Grand Master, in which they’ll focus on humanitarian work serving
the poor, migrants and refugees.
Francis has made his agenda in favor of a simple Church for the poor
abundantly clear, from his early choices not to live in the Apostolic
Palace, to wearing a plain, silver cross, and taking his name from the
great Medieval saint who renounced a significant patrimony to live a
life of poverty.
So, the question naturally arises: what might be the next ornaments or medieval flourishes to get the papal axe?
The seemingly provocative question actually has a venerable history.
Here is what St. John Paul II had to say, back in 1987 in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: “Faced by cases of need, one cannot ignore them in favor of
superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings for divine worship;
on the contrary it could be obligatory to sell these goods in order to
provide food, drink, clothing and shelter for those who lack these
John Paul cites St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Possidius in support of this idea.
St. Ambrose, a Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Milan in the late fourth century, is particularly instructive in this regard.
In his De Officiis Ministrorum, Ambrose admits to
melting down gold chalices and vessels to provide money for the release
of prisoners captured in the Battle of Adrianople in 378.
He defends his actions by saying, “He Who sent the apostles without
gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has
gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need.
“Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy
to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them
(Possidius, for those who are interested, was a friend of St. Augustine, and wrote in his Vita S. Augustini Episcopi that Augustine, like Ambrose, melted holy vessels to give the money to the poor.)
Pope Francis himself has had plenty to say on the matter.
In a 2015 interview with the Dutch newspaper Straatnieuws, the pope explains that he sells the gifts given to him, through his annual lottery, with proceeds going to the poor
In fact, the Vatican has just issued a list of the winners of the pope’s 4th
annual charity lottery. Items auctioned off included a five-door Opel
car, three bicycles, a set of silverware, a pen, a coffee machine and
even a hammock.
Nothing to sneeze at, but hardly Ambrose’s golden vessels.
Should something more be done?
At heart, it is not a question of “doing charity,” but of
authentically living Gospel values, which is a main point of Francis’s
Again, St. John Paul II: “Part of the teaching and most ancient practice of the Church is her
conviction that she is obliged by her vocation - she herself, her
ministers and each of her members - to relieve the misery of the
suffering, both far and near, not only out of her ‘abundance’ but also
out of her ‘necessities’.”
To be clear: the old argument that the Vatican should sell off its
artwork, trotted out from time to time, is not what is being suggested
here. That possibility, thankfully, has been ruled out by Francis (as it
was by Paul VI before him).
“If tomorrow I decide to put Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ up for auction,” the pope said in the interview with Straatnieuws,
“I cannot do this, since it is not the property of the Church. It is
kept in a church, but it belongs to humanity. This is true of all the
treasures of the Church.”
So we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Capital “C” culture is not at risk here. But giving teeth to the
pope’s calls against a consumerist culture, and in favor of a poor
Church for the poor, very much is.
The Church has numerous properties, in Rome and elsewhere, that are
unused or under-used. True, many villas, monasteries, convents, churches
and land belong to religious orders or individual dioceses and not the
Vatican. But it’s up to the Vatican to set the example.
Paul VI, on his 1965 visit to the UN, reportedly left behind a
13-carat white diamond ring and a cross of 60-carat diamonds edged by
Colombian emeralds to auction off for charity.
(These two items came on
the market again in 2014, valued at $1.9 million dollars.)
How many more jewel-encrusted crosses and rings are gathering dust in Vatican closets?
Is there any need to mention Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be
perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will
have treasure in heaven”?
The suggestion to sell off significant chunks of the Church’s wealth
may seem drastic, even utopian, but it’s been done and suggested by
saints and popes throughout history.
Francis would be acting well within
the tradition of the Catholic Church, not to mention the Gospels.
It may be radical, but should we expect anything less from this pope?