Cars registered to the Vatican display license plates with the letters SCV. Officially those initials stand for Stato della Citta del Vaticano (Vatican City State). But Italians say SCV stands for Se Christo Videsse ("If Christ could see"). One wonders: If Christ could see, what would he say?
Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to the election of the new pope, the world will experience a tsunami of images from Vatican City. Ordinarily skeptical journalists will gush over the art, the architecture, the ceremonies and the history of the Vatican. Predictably the media will fall in love with its sights and sounds. That's OK for them. They know and care little about the church. But we who love her and see her as the body of Christ made visible, should step back from the pomp and power to consider what image of her this projects.
What would Jesus say if he saw a long parade of cardinals in red silk cassocks and lace surplices? Would he think they were vested appropriately as successors of his apostles? He told the Twelve to take nothing for their first journey except a walking stick and a single garment (Mark 6:8-9). Do these cardinals travel in the spirit of the first apostles or in the spirit of Renaissance nobility? What would Jesus say if he heard bishops addressed as Your Eminence or Your Excellency"? Didn't he tell his followers not to be as the Pharisees who demanded titles of honor (Matthew 23:8-10). What would Jesus say if he saw cardinals in long silk capes (cappa magnas) processing to seats of honor at ceremonies and styling themselves as princes of the church? Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day who demanded seats of honor in synagogues and at public celebrations (Matthew 23:5-6).
What would Christ say if he knew about the Vatican Bank embroiled in scandal upon scandal over the last four decades? Just last February, the Vatican had its ATM services suspended for not being in full compliance with international standards on money laundering. Jesus told us we cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). Would he think we should own and manage a bank? What would Jesus think if he saw the enormous treasury of paintings, sculpture, jewels, architecture, vestments, books, tapestries and precious antiquities accumulated over centuries by the church? He told us not to store up treasure on earth where moth and decay destroy and thieves break in and steal, but rather to store up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19).
What would Jesus say if he saw some of his most prominent followers preoccupied with expensive rings, jeweled pectoral crosses and gold croziers while simultaneously lecturing the world about the sin of greed? Do you think he might say to us, "Blind guides, you strain out the gnat and swallow the camel" (Matthew 23:24)? What would Jesus say if he realized his church claimed to be a nation among nations, with all the rights and privileges of a nation? He said his kingdom was not of this earth (John 18:36).
Before we allow the media to wax rhapsodic over the Vatican and all its stuff, we should take a good close look at it for ourselves. We might need to admit some of it is a scandal in the scriptural sense of the word: a stumbling block,
something people trip over preventing them from coming to Christ. Jesus said it would be better if we had a millstone hung around our necks and be cast into the sea than for us to give scandal (Matthew 18:6).
Perhaps the time has come for us to downsize, just as we did at the end of the Papal States. In 1870 when Giuseppe Garibaldi and the troops of the Italian Risorgimento invaded Rome, they put an end to the Papal States. The church at the time thought it was a calamity. Pius IX excommunicated some leaders of the new Italian state. Yet today we see the end of the Papal States as a blessing. We are glad the church does not rule Italy. (In fact recent elections there prove no one can rule Italy!) The Vatican is the last remnant of the Papal States, created as a distinct nation by the 1929 Lateran Concordat signed with the government of Benito Mussolini, Actually, the Vatican is a little "Potemkin village" of a state, just a facade, allowing its inhabitants the claim to be an independent nation. Yet Jesus said we should "render to Caesar the things of Caesar's (Mark 12:17). He did not say we should become Caesar.
I recognize we need a well-equipped, independent center for church administration. I also realize there are many good, dedicated people working in the Vatican. It is an historical treasure, and we cannot just level it. But we really should downsize. This is not an ephemeral concern. It goes to the heart of who we are as a church and to the authenticity of our witness. We cannot lecture the world about the danger of materialism in a homily and a few moments later elevate a jewel-encrusted chalice at the consecration.
What could we do? To start with, we should close the bank. We could easily contract with major banks to provide our banking services, just as other international organizations do. We should close our embassies. The pope should relate to the world as a pastor, not as a leader of a nation. Priests should be pastors of souls, celebrating Mass with people,
anointing the sick, baptizing and teaching the faith; they should not be diplomats attending embassy receptions across
the globe. With the priest shortage, we need them in the vineyard. If we need to speak to Caesar, we should do so as Jesus did before Pilate, in humble truthfulness.
We should transfer the Vatican museum to an independent trust to preserve its treasures for scholarly research and for all humanity to enjoy, for our treasure is not on this earth. We need our churches, schools, orphanages, refugee camps, convents and monasteries. We need whatever is necessary for our mission : nothing more. Church leaders once thought we needed the Papal States, the Inquisition, the Crusades. They were all wrong. Some people today still think we need pomp and power to proclaim Christ. These people are wrong. Pomp and power are serious impediments to our proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus himself told us!
What if we were a simpler, poorer, humbler and more authentic church? Se Cristo videsse! If Christ could see that!