The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy

by John Saward, appearing in Volume 31

A penitent woman anoints the feet of Jesus in Peter Paul Rubens’s painting Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

A penitent woman anoints the feet of Jesus in Peter Paul Rubens’s painting Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee. Photo:

Is there a place for the beauty of the liturgy in what Pope Francis calls “a Church which is poor and for the poor”?1 It would seem there is not. God through Isaiah declares His “hatred” for “feasts” and “solemn assemblies,” for “the melody of harps” and “incense,” in a world in which the rich oppress the poor. Instead of all this cultic extravagance, says Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. . . . Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:13f, 15–17; Am 5:21, 23f). Twelve hundred years later, Saint John Chrysostom presents a similar challenge to the people of Antioch: “What is the use of loading Christ’s table with vessels of gold, if He Himself [in His members] is dying of hunger?”2 If we accept, then, these admonitions of the saints, preoccupation with the externals of religion would seem to be a distraction from the essence of religion: “Religion pure and undefiled before God the Father is this [says Saint James]: to give aid to orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself unspotted from this world” (Jas 1:27).

The case against the sacred beauty of the liturgical arts appears to be overwhelming until we recall a dinner long ago in Bethany. In our mind we see the tears of a penitent woman as she pours sweet-smelling ointment over feet soon to be pierced by nails, and we hear the protest of a man who is a thief and a traitor: “Why this waste? The ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” And as we think about this meeting of humble love with hypocritical indignation, the words of the eternal Word incarnate resound in our conscience with new force: “She has done a beautiful thing for me. . . . The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always” (Mt 26:10f). The Heart of Jesus enfolds the poor with the charity of truth and justice. He wants them always to be loved for His sake. He will not allow them to be used as an ideological plaything, as Judas uses them, to denigrate the devotion of a contrite heart. The Divine Saviour insists, “She has done a beautiful thing for me,” and by His Holy Spirit, throughout the centuries, He inspires the Church, His Bride, to see herself in the person of Mary of Bethany and to do beautiful things for Him, to lavish the loveliness of her love upon Him in the liturgical arts of chant and ceremonial, iconography and architecture. Saint John Paul speaks for the whole Tradition when he says:

The Church is not afraid of being “wasteful,” and devotes the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. . . . Could there ever be an adequate means of expressing the acceptance of that gift of self which the divine Bridegroom continually makes to His Bride, the Church, by bringing the Sacrifice offered once and for all on the Cross to successive generations of believers and thus becoming nourishment for all the faithful?3

In what follows, I want first to consider what it means to say that the Church is “poor and for the poor,” and secondly to argue that it is precisely because the Church is in a certain way “poor and for the poor” that she must worship God by means of sacred beauty. The poverty of her life and the beauty of her liturgy have the same source and the same goal in Christ, the divine Head and Bridegroom of the Church, Priest and Victim of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. For His sake, and by His sanctifying influence upon her, the Bride of Christ is herself Lady Poverty and the Mother of Fairest Love. The Church is poor, and for that very reason she has the power to bring forth the beauty of holiness in our souls and the holiness of beauty in our sanctuaries.

1. The Church That Is Poor

The Poverty and Beauty of Dependence


The Church is poor, first of all, in her dependence upon Christ, for without Him she has nothing, can do nothing, and is nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). “What do you have that you did not receive?” asks Saint Paul of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:7). The Church’s riches come entirely from the Trinitarian Godhead through the humanity of the Son, and are all of the spiritual order: Christ’s revealed truth in her teaching and His sanctifying grace in the sacraments, with all that accompanies sanctifying grace in the lives of the sanctified—the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, bearing fruits and bringing Beatitudes. Now, the truth of Christ that the poor Church proclaims to the nations is beautiful, as is His grace in the sacraments. Indeed, all that is true is beautiful, as it is also good. Now, the poverty of the Church is her receptivity to this beauty of the truth and grace of her Head; what Hopkins said of Holy Mother Mary applies also to Holy Mother Church: she “lets all God’s glory through.”4 And since her children on earth are creatures made up of flesh and spirit, with senses as well as intellect, the Church honours the invisible beauty of Christ’s truth and grace—the beauty of Christ Himself hidden under the sacramental species—with the outward and sensible splendour of the liturgical arts.

The Poverty and Beauty of Imitation


Secondly, the Church is poor because she imitates the life lived by Jesus, her Head and Bridegroom, in this world. She does not seek the world’s glittering prizes any more than He did. Her goal is the glory of the Triune God and the salvation of mankind. The ninth-century monastic theologian Rabanus Maurus says that in her poverty, “renouncing the world and its delights, [the Church] daily serves God and struggles for the Kingdom of Heaven.”5 She asks her pastors to employ temporal possessions in a prudent and temperate way for that spiritual end, and condemns simony, clerical avarice, and all abuse of ecclesiastical office for the sake of personal enrichment.

Now, the beauty of the Church’s liturgy, like the poverty of her life in imitation of Christ, is a support of her preaching; indeed, it is itself a kind of preaching. To quote Pope Francis: “The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.”6 The holy images defended by the Second Council of Nicaea and the Council of Trent against the heresy of iconoclasm are a “Bible for the poor”: they convey to the mind through the eyes the whole content of scripture.

In the last question of the last complete treatise of the Summa theologiae, placing himself in the great tradition of liturgical exegesis, Saint Thomas argues that the ceremonial actions of the celebrant of Mass are not “ridiculous gesticulations”: they are done for the sake of reverence, and they “represent something,” that is, they teach a lesson.7 For example, the censing at high Mass is done in a particular order: first the altar, then the priest and sacred ministers, and then the people, to signify that grace comes from Christ the Head (symbolized by the altar) through the priest to the people. The architecture of the Dominican friars who designed Santa Maria Novella in Florence and Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome was a kind of preaching, as was the painting of the Dominican blessed, John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico). In her new and groundbreaking book Religious Poverty and Visual Riches, Joanna Cannon of the Courtauld Institute in London shows how the Dominicans of central Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries produced iconography of immense beauty, not in contradiction of their life of poverty and preaching, but as one of its chief fruits. Professor Cannon argues that in early Dominican church design and decoration, the chief principles were “moderation and humility, not abnegation and humiliation”8: neither in their lives nor in their convents did religious poverty mean squalor or the neglect of liturgical beauty. There was no extravagance of expenditure on sacred art: friar-artists would often use Mass stipends and stole fees to buy their materials, and secular masters, such as Andrea Bonaiuti in Florence, were sometimes paid in kind by being given free bed and board, even for life.9

The Church of Santa Maria Novella, completed in 1360 by the Dominicans in Florence

The Church of Santa Maria Novella, completed in 1360 by the Dominicans in Florence. Photo:

The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella was frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop from 1485 to 1490.

The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella was frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop from 1485 to 1490. Photo:

The same coincidence of “religious poverty and visual riches” can be observed in the Franciscan Order. For the love of Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi imitated His poverty, and for love of Him too he ensured that the celebration of the Sacrament in which He renews the Sacrifice He once offered on the Cross was adorned with all the beauty he could muster. The Poverello clothed himself in rags, but believed that only what was clean and beautiful should furnish the house and altar of God. His restoring of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, began with the repairing of a church building. In one of his letters he castigates the clergy for “the sad state of the chalices, the corporals, and the altar-linens upon which the Body and Blood of our Lord are sacrificed.”

Are we not moved by a sense of piety concerning all these things, since the good Lord offers Himself into our hands, and we handle Him and receive Him daily with our mouth? Or do we forget that we must come into His hands? Well then, let us quickly and firmly amend our ways in these and other matters, and wherever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ has been unlawfully housed and neglected, let it be removed from that place and deposited and locked in a precious location.10

The poverty of Saint Francis’s holy life inspired new forms of beauty in Christian art. Through Cimabue and Giotto, he brought the gift of tears into Western painting. In the laudi of his spiritual son Jacopone da Todi, and in his own Canticle of the Sun, with which vernacular literature in Italy begins, he purified and surrendered to the Blessed Trinity the joie de vivre of the troubadours. As the poet Francis Thompson said, “Sworn to Poverty [Saint Francis] forswore not Beauty, but discerned through the lamp Beauty the Light God. . . . Poetry clung round the cowls of his Order.”11

The Beauty of Evangelical Poverty

Thirdly, the Church is poor because she commends to her children the vow of evangelical poverty. In fidelity to Christ she distinguishes between commandment and counsel. The commandments remove from our lives what is incompatible with charity (mortal sin, including the sins of envy, avarice, theft, and obsession with material things).12 The counsels, embraced by religious under vow, remove from our lives what can hinder perfection in charity (such as the personal ownership of material things). In commending evangelical poverty, the Church follows the straight path of wisdom and rejects the extremism of those who, like the Fraticelli, despised worldly goods almost in the manner of the Manichees, as if they were intrinsically evil.

The poverty of the Church’s religious, undertaken in imitation of Christ and for the sake of more intimate union with Him in charity, has been a fruitful source of the sacred beauty of the liturgical arts. Freed from the desire to possess and exploit, consecrated religious have had the peace to contemplate the natural beauty of God’s creation and the supernatural beauty of His work of re-creation. Liturgical chant in both East and West was preserved, developed, and most honoured in monasteries, communities of men and women who follow the poor Christ in poverty. The iconography of the Byzantine East, to which Western art in the Middle Ages never ceased in some measure to be indebted, was likewise chiefly the work of monks. True, most iconographers and architects in the West have been laymen and sometimes wealthy men, but many of the greatest of them—once again we think of Fra Angelico or of the anonymous artists who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells—were religious with “affections withdrawn from worldly things.”

The Beauty of Poverty of Spirit

Fourthly, the Church is poor because she is holy and therefore has poverty of spirit, for whoever is holy has poverty of spirit. She has compassion for those who suffer material poverty in the sense of being deprived of the food, clothing, and shelter needed for life and health (miseria, misère); but realist that she is, she knows that, while such a state of need may help a man to be humble and trust in God, it may have the opposite effect, making him bitter and eaten up with envy. She commends the vow of poverty, but she knows, as Saint Paul says, that “if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor

. . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). And the Church also recognizes, in the words of Pope Saint Leo the Great, that “very many rich people use their wealth for works of charity rather than as a means to puff up their pride.”13 What the Church prizes above all, what she herself possesses, what she enables her children to possess, is the beatitude of poverty of spirit: “Poverty is blessed,” says Saint Leo, “when it is not beguiled by a longing for earthly goods, and does not seek increase of the world’s riches, but desires to be enriched with heavenly blessings.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Beautiful is poverty of spirit, for there is nothing more grotesque than its opposite: the bloating of the soul of the man who “seeks greatness in honours and riches,” who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Such a man is in danger of falling into sensualism and intemperance—of all sins, says Saint Thomas, the most spiritually ugly: “It is repugnant to [man’s] brightness and beauty, for indulgence in the pleasures of intemperance dulls the light of intelligence, in which all loveliness of virtues shines.”14 Now, the beauty of poverty of spirit in the saints has inspired the Church’s iconographers throughout the ages. Consider Saint Dominic in the works of Fra Angelico and El Greco: here is a man who seeks to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified. Or Saint Francis as Cimabue represents him in the lower basilica in Assisi, the glorious little pauper, radiating humility and the love of Christ, with the mark of the nails in his hands and of the lance in his side. Consider above all the portraits of the all-holy Mother of God, from the icons of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the Madonnas of Botticelli, Perugino, and Raphael. If there is beauty anywhere on earth in the works of men, it is here, in these depictions of an immaculate heart whose only treasure is Jesus.

Saint Dominic in Prayer by El Greco, 1588

Saint Dominic in Prayer by El Greco, 1588. Photo:



Madonna Enthroned with the Child, Saint Francis, and Four Angels by Cimabue, lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, 1280

Madonna Enthroned with the Child, Saint Francis, and Four Angels by Cimabue, lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, 1280. Photo:

2. The Church That Is “For the Poor”

The Church is “for the poor,” and for that very reason she is “for sacred beauty.” She is for the poor because her divine Head, even though He is glorified in Himself at the Father’s right hand, on earth is hungry and thirsty, naked and imprisoned, in His members: “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it [or did not do it] to one of these my least brethren, you did it [or did not do it] to me” (Mt 25:40, 45). She is for the poor because her Head and Bridegroom is for the poor. In the words of Pope Francis, “God shows the poor ‘His first mercy.’”15 The Holy Father says that the poor “have much to teach us. . . . In their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”16

Now, if we “listen” to the poor, if we let ourselves be “evangelized” by them, then we shall find that they themselves love and long for sacred beauty, for a visible expression of the invisible beauty of the risen Christ, in the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated and in the buildings in which the celebration takes place. The beauty of the liturgy is first of all for God’s greater glory, but it is also—and for that very reason—good news for the poor. In her classic work The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, Nadezhda Gorodetsky quotes the nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Bishop Ignaty: “The people are pressed like ants in their poor huts, but they would build a high and beautiful temple of God. . . .

They walk almost in rags, but they long to see the church shining with gold and silver.” The hovels in which they live are, in Gorodetsky’s words, “but a night lodging of a pilgrim;” but they see the church shining with its gilded icons and blazing candles as “the reflection of eternal life and bliss.”17 If we listen to the poor, if we let ourselves be evangelized by them, then we shall hear them reminding us that their first needs may be material in the order of time (a starving man must be fed before he can be catechized), but are spiritual in the order of eternal salvation. We owe the poor the corporal works of mercy, but we must not fail to give them the spiritual works of mercy, helping them and ourselves by sacred beauty to (in the words of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom) “lay aside all earthly cares” and “sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

The Church is poor and for the poor, and is therefore beautiful and for sacred beauty. We can make the converse argument: it is because she is for sacred beauty that the Church is “for the poor.” The argument runs as follows: Saint Thomas distinguishes in the sacraments between what was instituted by Christ and what was instituted by the Church.18 The incarnate Son of God Himself determined the substance of each of the sacraments, while His Church, in all the diversity of times and places, has adorned the celebration of the sacraments with the accidents of sacred beauty: ceremonies; music; sacred vessels and vestments; the ordering, furnishing, and decorating of the church building; and the holy images of Christ and His saints. These forms of beauty, chosen and made by men, according to Saint Thomas are “not essential to the Sacrament, but belong to the solemnity that is added to the Sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients.”19 By arousing our devotion and reverence for Christ really present in the Eucharist, the forms of sacred beauty enable us with greater love to unite ourselves to His self-offering to the Father, and to receive Him—His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—when He comes to us in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is indeed the sacramentum caritatis, the loving gift of the Heart of Jesus and the chief source of the charity of the whole Church and of her members. It is therefore from the Eucharistic Heart of Christ that the saints, moved to devotion and reverence by the sacred beauty of the liturgy, have drawn the power to love and serve the poor for the sake of Jesus. As Pope Benedict says in Deus caritas est, “The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others.”20 To the words of Joseph Ratzinger we may add this remark: to support the devotion of “their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord,” the saints ensured that the celebration of the Eucharist was made beautiful with all the resources at their disposal.

3. Iconoclasm: The Heresy That Is Against the Poor

The spirit of Judas the thief has never died. Without fear of refutation, we can say that, throughout the Church’s history, the destroyers of sacred beauty have been oppressors of the poor, or at least have indulged themselves with worldly goods to the point of doing injustice to the poor. For example, the Iconoclastic clergy of the eighth century were notorious for wearing expensive clothes. The men who smashed icons and whitewashed frescoes smeared themselves with scent and wrapped themselves in purple. That is why the sixteenth canon of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which defended the holy icons against the Iconoclasts, ruled that “it does not become those in holy orders to be clad in costly apparel.”21

In his History of the Protestant Reformation, William Cobbett—farmer, soldier, political agitator, and journalist of the early nineteenth century—shows how the English Reformation not only destroyed the sacred beauty of a thousand years of Catholic Christianity, but wrecked the countryside, ruined agriculture, and impoverished the common people. It was, he said, “engendered in lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood.”22 The land worked by the monks for the common good of local communities was seized by the coming men of the court of Henry VIII for their own enrichment, as were the treasures of a thousand sanctuaries. Inspired in part by Cobbett, Augustus Welby Pugin, the great architect of the Gothic Revival, in his book Contrasts presents drawings to illustrate the differences between the Middle Ages and modern times, not only in building styles but also in social philosophy. At the bottom of one page, we see the poor finding hospitality in a Benedictine abbey, where the monks have the obligation to welcome guests as if they were Christ. By contrast, at the top of the page, Pugin shows us the “scientific” way of housing the poor in early Victorian England: incarcerating them in the “Panopticon,” the model jail invented by Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of Utilitarianism.23 In the mind of Pugin and Cobbett, the abolishers of the Mass and the sacraments—the destroyers of the old faith and its heritage of beauty—were also guilty of a crime that cries to heaven for vengeance: grinding the faces of the poor. Were Pugin and Cobbett succumbing to anti-Protestant bigotry? Well, Pugin was a convert to the Catholic faith from Protestantism, and by temperament a zealot; but Cobbett, to whose writings Pugin was indebted, was born and died a Protestant, and was a down-to-earth countryman. He assures his readers that his only motive in writing his History, the most violent denunciation of the Protestant Reformation ever published, was “a disinterested love of truth and justice.”24

Plate from A. W. Pugin’s Contrasts

Plate from A. W. Pugin’s Contrasts. Photo:

4. Poverty and Beauty: Resolving the Difficulties

Like the Angelic Doctor in the articles of the Summa, let us return to the objections to beauty with which we began. First, there is the prophets’ denunciation of feasts and incense. To understand the message of Isaiah and Amos, we need to remember that in the sacrifices of the Old Covenant what was pleasing to God was not the thing offered (the blood of animals), but the righteous disposition of the person who made the offering.25 When that disposition was absent, as it was when the priest or layman was culpably indifferent to the poor, then, as Isaiah and Amos teach us, the sacrifices were odious to God. Now, in the Sacrifice of the New and Everlasting Covenant in the Mass, which is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice once offered by Christ on the Cross, what is offered is infinitely pleasing to God because it is the Body and Blood of His only-begotten Son, the slain Lamb of God; and the principal offerer, too, has a disposition, a Heart, of the purest reverence and self-giving love, for that principal offerer is the same Jesus, the Eternal High Priest. What may be deficient is the heart of the ordained priest at the altar and of the laity in the pews. Even a priest whose soul is black in mortal sin can validly consecrate and offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and from the objective power of that Sacrifice a profusion of blessings are poured out upon the living and the dead, though the priest, by saying Mass without repenting, has added sacrilege to his already existing offences.

Saint John Chrysostom, in the passage I quoted at the beginning, is likewise condemning not liturgical beauty as such. After all he is the greatest liturgist among the Greek Fathers, and his anaphóra, celebrated almost daily in the Churches of the Byzantine rite, remains one of the jewels of Tradition. Saint John is not forcing us to choose between charity towards the poor and beauty in the liturgy, but simply challenging us to make sure that, in striving for the latter, we do not neglect the former. He says, “I am not saying this to criticize the use of such ornaments. We must attend to both, but to Christ [in the poor] first.”

Conclusion: Maria, tota pulchra, Mater pauperum

Saint Francis of Assisi loved to call the Mother of God the Virgo paupercula, the poor little Virgin. I said earlier that the Church herself is the one Francis called Lady Poverty, but first of all Lady Poverty is our Lady Mary. She is the Church’s supreme member, the Church’s most perfect model of union with Christ, and the Church’s devoted Mother, the mediatrix of all the graces that flow from Christ the Head into His members. Mary, Virgin Mother of Christ, is thus the living personification of the Church, Virgin Mother of Christ’s faithful. She is also therefore the personification of the Church “that is poor and for the poor.” Our blessed Lady is poor in her utter dependence on Christ, in her poverty of spirit, in her immaculate humility, in her virginity which looks for no source of fruitfulness other than the direct action of God. Her Magnificat is testament to her poverty. No one is more conscious of her nothingness as a creature than the mother of the Creator, His lowly handmaid. She recognizes that whatever she has or does, whatever she is, is His gift to her. “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is His name” (Lk 1:49). She is the answer to the prayers of the fathers, Abraham and his seed. She is the queen of the poor and faithful remnant of the Lord.

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli, 1481

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli, 1481. Photo:


And Mary, Virgo paupercula, is also “all fair,” tota pulchra: beautiful by the sanctifying grace of her Son from the first moment of her conception, beautiful by the risen glory of her Son from her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. She is beautiful in all the virtues, in the gifts and fruits and Beatitudes of the Holy Spirit, her Spouse. Her divine Son’s beautification of the whole created order, the new heaven and earth, is inaugurated in her, the Mother of Fairest Love. Heaven’s queen is paradise in perfection. Dante sings in the person of Saint Bernard: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, / humbler and loftier past creation’s measure, / the fulcrum of the everlasting plan. . . . In you is mercy, in you is piety, / in you magnificence, in you the sum / of excellence in all things that come to be.”26 In our Lady we see everything that in Christianity, by the grace of Jesus, is compassion and humility, everything that is most purely and perfectly beautiful. Is there a place for liturgical beauty in the Church that is poor and for the poor? There is. The name of that place is the Immaculate Heart of Mary.