Sell a painting, feed the poor

Often strident voices demand in the name of Christ that the Vatican could sell its precious paintings and use the funds to feed the poor. There are hungry people all over the world. Some reports claim that in our wealthy nation one in six Americans goes to bed hungry. Visitors to Delhi, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil report their shock at the hoards of beggars in streets or favelas constructed of tin and scraps perched on dangerous ravines.

"The poor you shall always have with you," Jesus reminds us. But is there a moral problem with accumulated wealth in treasuries or patrimony when money is so desperately needed for food and health care? The case can be argued that any means should be used to supply needed aid and relieve immediate suffering. In fact, some believe such dire poverty leads to involvement with terrorist plots. Some suggest, perhaps in self interest, that radical forces prey on those in humbled conditions and recruit them to carry out terrorist bombings. The radicalized recruits are comforted in the notion their cooperation with terrorists will help take care of their destitute families.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church has always prized painted images as devotional aids. The Vatican holds one of the most valuable art collections in the world. It is such a vast and valuable collection that it is rumored to be uninsurable. That is, no policy could cover the real cost of replacement of stolen or damaged paintings or sculptures. It is, quite literally, priceless.

Historically, popes commissioned paintings or secured valuable paintings for their private devotional chapels. To pick one: the chapel of Pope Nicholas V is decorated by the work of Fra Angelico from 1447. Frescoed walls depict events from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. One shows St. Lawrence receiving the treasure of the church. These frescoes are masterpieces of the Florentine artist's mature work.

The Catholic Church along with other patrons made Rome a magnet for artists throughout Europe. During the 16th century culture savvy Cardinal del Monte commissioned Amerigo Caravaggio's work. These works with their modern and expressive canvasses spurred artists toward naturalist figures and theatrical compositions. In the Boston area, we all recall the story of a Caravaggio found in a Jesuit house in Dublin. Stained with the smoke of the centuries and unacknowledged as work of a master talent, it was discovered during a restoration of the Jesuit House. Eventually it made its way on loan to the McMullen Museum at Boston College.

This Caravaggio is especially heart-wrenching. "The Taking of Christ" depicts the moment when Jesus is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane. At the center of the painting Jesus and Judas Iscariot lock in embrace with armored Roman guards pressing around them. This large work, along with his "The Calling of St. Matthew," and "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness" are powerful teaching tools. No viewer is left unmoved. The dramatic impact of a Caravaggio is so great that those who know little about art crowd to see his work. Surely Caravaggio's short and unhappy life lives on in his art.

But what of these priceless works of art. What could they fetch at auction? Titans? Caravaggio's? Or Rubens? The highest price paid for a Titian was for his "The Portrait of Alfonso d'Avalos Marquis of Vasto in Armor." It was sold to the Getty Museum for over $88 million dollars. The next highest was a 1556 painting of "Diana and Actaeon" which sold for over $77 million in February of 2009. It was relinquished by the Duke of Sutherland and sold to the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery London. The highest price paid for a work by Rubens "Massacre of the Innocents," sold for $98.9 million. The traveler can view it on a tour of the British galleries.

Suppose the Vatican tried to sell a master painting. Let us say they owned the highest valued painting ever sold at auction: Cezanne's "The Card Player." Curators could have fetched a whopping $267.9 million. Who paid such a princely price: The Royal family of Qatar. The private sale was settled in April 2011. Will the public be able to view the purchase by the Royal Family?

Now suppose we calculate how many people would be fed and for how long by the sale of a Titian or a Rubens. How many African or Brazilian children would be lifted out of poverty? We don't know the answer, but one expert claims the Vatican's art collection is worth $17 billion. And while that is a staggering amount of money, it is a literal drop in the bucket. The poor of the world would be fed for a few months and poverty would return. The walls of the Vatican museum would bear the outlines of the departed masterpieces. There would be an empty corner of St. Peter's Basilica and Michelangelo's Pieta would probably take up residence in the private museum of some Saudi prince. Would the world be better? Would the Church have gained or lost its power to draw people to the mission of Christ.

Paying visitors to Rome who stand in long lines for admission to the Vatican Museum in a manner aid the poor. Vatican collections in all forms are used to feed the poor world-wide.

Pope Francis's model saint, St. Francis of Assisi, was known for his concerns for the poor, but also St. Francis's mission to rebuild the Church. Many artists and innovators of his period, such as Raphael, Giotto and Michelangelo, were third order Franciscans. Pope Francis, who has clearly indicated a new style of papacy, has pointed us all to a fresh awareness of our responsibilities to the poor.

A monk from St. Benedict Abbey in Still River, Mass., engaged worshippers in this topic during the past Lent using the gospel passage about Mary and Martha. Mary washed Jesus' feet with the fragrant oil nard. It was Judas who suggested the money spent on precious nard would have been better spent on the poor. Here is a lesson on allocation of resources. Mary made the right choice by choosing Christ even before giving to the poor. Is it right to have beautiful churches and art, intricate vestments, jeweled chalices which highlight the liturgy? Our answer is yes. If these things elevate the souls of the faithful to Christ, in our view, the monk's choice was correct.

And the debate will continue. Nobody ever promised being Catholic allowed easy decisions.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.