Where do you stand on the chair?
James Thomas More Griffin, at his blog and on his Facebook page, posted a picture that went viral: It showed two popes’ chairs.
One was built for Pope John Paul II’s visit to New York by a master carver.
The other is a plain oak chair built for Pope Francis’ visit by immigrants.
He laments the way the modern Church chooses the simple and plain and avoids the ornate:
“The fact that we deride beauty as vain or wasteful is one of many cancers in our church and society. By insisting upon plain, ‘humble’ furnishings for our churches in the prosperous first world, on the contrary, we make a show of false humility, prideful in our shabbiness like a well-to-do family man who calls himself ‘middle class’ for wearing board shorts to work and then frowns on a poorer man for wearing a suit.”
The Case for a Great Chair
He has a point. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself accepts a costly homage done for him – and rejects the attitude that opposes it.
Lazarus’ sister “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, ‘Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?’”
After the Gospel makes clear that Judas didn’t really care for the poor, Jesus answers: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
If costly perfumed oil honors Jesus, why can’t a beautiful chair honor his Vicar?
The vestments, furniture and symbols of the Church have a language all their own that speaks to people without words about what is important.
A church should be inspiringly beautiful. Things used at Mass should be beautiful and reverent – and for us, that often means “impressive.” Popes are symbols of the Church – and not just popes, but also their chairs. After all, we are a Church that believes in papal infallibility when he teaches ex cathedra (which means “from his chair” or even “from his throne”) and we even have a feast to celebrate St. Peter’s Chair.
And yet …
And yet, I can see the arguments for a simpler chair, too.
For one thing, this isn’t the Pope’s permanent “cathedra” – the chair affixed to the floor of Rome’s St. John Lateran, his cathedral. It is a chair he’ll use on one stop of his travels.
The Church at various times has sought to send different messages to the world through its art and architecture. St. Patrick’s Cathedral itself is an immigrant Church telling a resistant world, “We have arrived, and we aren’t going anywhere.”
This pope – and the Church along with him – have seen the need to send a different message. Francis has spent his entire episcopal career making a point of how the Church should be of the poor and for the poor. Many bishops have followed his example.
After the disaster of the sex abuse crisis – and more to the point, the U.S. bishops’ cover-up of it – this is understandable. The hierarchy wants to send the message that they not distant, aloof, out of touch rich men enjoying comforts.
Griffin is right to warn against the “false humility” we can all be guilty of at times. But bishops are in a bit of a heads-I’m-wrong, tails-you’re-right situation when it comes to that.
One way to be humble is to accept the traditional attire and accoutrements of the office: This is what Pope Benedict did. Another way to be humble is to seek more humble attire and accoutrements: This is what Pope Francis does.
… and Pope Benedict was criticized for being too ostentatious, and Pope Francis is sometimes criticized for being too ostentatiously simple.
So, I guess I can see the case for and against the chair.
Where do you stand on the chair?