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 heritage.
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 things.”
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 DeOfficiis 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 sustenance.”
(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 message.
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?
Delia Gallagher is a graduate of the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. She holds an MA in Philosophy and Theology from Blackfriars College, Oxford. She is CNN’s Vatican Correspondent.