NEW YORK — As the Met unveils its “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit featuring precious items from the Sistine Chapel next week, it’s being recognized as a major cultural event. Less heralded is the fact that it also marks the 35th anniversary of a significant partnership of U.S.-based art aficionados and the Church, through the Vatican Patrons.

Founded in 1983 after a major collection of Vatican art toured the United States, the “Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums” was based on the idea that American philanthropists should directly participate in conserving Vatican treasures.

According to Father Kevin Lixey, who serves as international director of the Vatican Patrons, there are now 20 chapters throughout the world, with 15 in the United States alone.

Of the 2,000 benefactors who make up the Vatican Patrons, Lixey estimates that 1,600 are from North America. In sum, he says that U.S. patrons donate approximately $1 million a year toward restoration projects at the Vatican Museums.

While the patrons were not responsible for a major restoration of the Sistine Chapel that took place between 1980 and 1999, Lixey said the same energy and focus on preserving the Church’s art drives American patrons seeking an official structure in which they could be involved in similar initiatives.

Prior to heading the Vatican Patrons, Lixey worked for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, where he was tasked with serving as a liaison between the Church and the realm of sports.

He told Crux that his new post offers a similar opportunity to bring people beyond the usual circles into discussion about the Church.

“Art is a conversation piece,” said Lixey, “and the Vatican Museums become a door into the Church for so many who aren’t Catholic.”

Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, sees a similar connection. He told Crux that promoting beauty is intricately a part of “the new evangelization,” a phrase popularized by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to describe a fresh proposal of the faith to modern culture.

Knestout, a former architect turned priest, discovered the work of the Vatican Patrons approximately eight years ago while an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington.

“More people are interested, understandably, in the Church’s charitable works, but beauty is a path that can lead people to a deeper appreciation of God and to faith,” Knestout said.

“If you think about the new evangelization, one of the most effective paths in our present age to introduce people to the idea of God and his presence is the path of beauty,” he said.

Mar Morosse, a New York based curator and artist and member of the local Vatican Patrons chapter, told Crux that “Americans are by nature very generous and engaged in art and in culture.”

She credits European art as a means for many Americans to connect with their roots, particularly through the Vatican’s collections, which she believes is the “pride of the Catholic community globally.”

Historically, the New York chapter of the Patrons has been one of the most effective fundraising groups on behalf of Vatican restoration projects, and she believes the upcoming exhibit opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will only add to their enthusiasm.

Lixey agrees, noting that widespread coverage of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is proof that “the Vatican sells.”

“There’s a lot of buzz around this event, precisely because the Vatican is involved. It shows that there’s an interest and intrigue,” he said.

He also said he wants the exhibit to be an opportunity for visitors to uncover the deeper importance of the pieces on display.

“My hope is that something that is as sublime as the vestments that are there and all of the beauty of the precious pearls and gold thread, it’s more than a fashion statement,” said Lixey. “What’s behind it is the salvation of the Mass. It’s priceless and precious because of what’s going on there.”

As for the Vatican Patrons, he believes they’re excited to seize that occasion.

“For the patrons in New York,” said Lixey, “it offers them a chance to speak about this faith alongside their longstanding support of the Vatican.”

Stay tuned for Crux’s latest news and updates related to the 2018 Met Gala and exhibition on Catholic fashion, where Crux’s faith and culture correspondent, Claire Giangravè, and national correspondent Christopher White will be providing regular updates. Follow them on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave & @CWWhite212 and visit Crux for daily updates and interviews from New York City.