One year ago, Kelli and I were in the midst of a three-week, once-in-a-lifetime trip throughout much of western Europe. We crammed as much as we could into a nonstop adventure, and it was truly amazing.
One of the many highlights for me was visiting some of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world, some as many as 1,000 years old. I love old buildings, and especially old places of worship, so pretty much every time we passed an old church (which was constantly; they’re seemingly on every street corner), I made us wander inside.
Exactly one year ago today, we were in Paris. That meant the chance to see Notre Dame, and it was everything I could have dreamed it would be. We toured the cathedral itself but didn’t have time that day to climb the steps to the top of the bell towers. Luckily, we were able to do that on the final day of our trip after returning to Paris for our flight home.
As everyone knows, tragedy struck Notre Dame just a few months later. Heroic efforts by the Paris firefighters saved the structure from complete destruction, but it will be many years before it is restored and reopened. Immediately, people from across the world pledged donations to the restoration of the church, with figures topping $1 billion.
Closer to home, Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tacoma has stood along I-5 since the freeway was built (the church has been there for nearly 100 years). While that history cannot compare with the churches of Europe, it is still a gorgeous landmark and part of the city’s history. But recently, it’s fallen into disrepair, and it’s currently closed to the public. Authorities estimate at least $2.5 million in repairs just to get it functional to reopen, and $18 million to provide the full renovation it needs. Church and community members are banding together to see if they can raise the funds and save it from destruction.
As someone who loves old buildings, and especially churches, I hope they are successful. Similarly, I’m thankful for those willing to pledge the money to restore Notre Dame after the devastating fire.
As a follower of Christ, I’m torn. These buildings bring glory to God and play foundational roles in the faith of so many people, both attendees and visitors. They are spectacular showcases of one of the greatest gifts God gave us: the creative ability to design and construct masterpieces. They’ve stood for decades, centuries, and, in some cases, millennia, and we should do everything we can to ensure they stand for more so future generations can experience them.
At the same time, what kind of impact could $1 billion dollars have to help the poor, hungry, and sick of Paris and beyond? And locally, what could $18 million do for the homeless of Pierce County? Do we really have our priorities in order when we are so willing to pledge huge sums of money to keep old buildings that we claim represent love for the least of these rather than spending that money to, well, love the least of these?
I remember talking to Kelli about this exact thing during our trip through Europe. We admired the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and praised God for this beautiful building dedicated to God’s glory. But then we discussed that exact building’s role in what became the Protestant Reformation because it was partially financed through the granting of indulgences, a controversial piece of Christian history that reflected prioritizing finances over sound doctrine reflecting Christ’s love.
Touring many of the churches, we learned about things like marble that had been transported by hand over hundreds of miles to ensure the best and most elegant final product. And solely as a spectator of history and beauty, those things were impressive to hear. But particularly at St. Peter’s, with countless beggars just beyond the walls of the Vatican, I couldn’t help but wonder just how much it all cost? I mean that question on multiple levels.
Initially, the question revolves around money, as these buildings cost the modern equivalent of millions of dollars to build, and even more to maintain and restore over the years. In fact, almost every old church we stepped into on the trip had signage up asking for money to help support restoration efforts. We even saw one beautiful old church building in the heart of south Dublin that had been completely abandoned and had a “For Rent” sign. The church community couldn’t afford the maintenance of the church building, and it became a hindrance. Not only does something so grand cost a lot of money initially, it requires significant upkeep.
Beyond that, how many people were turned away from receiving assistance because the leaders were so focused on building a church worthy of God’s glory rather than being the church and reflecting God’s glory? How many people physically perished from lack of food and shelter just outside while countless dollars were being poured into these facilities?
Then looking to practices like the selling of indulgences, how many people were led astray spiritually by leadership who clearly placed a premium on money and structures over hearts and lives?
Our natural tendency as humans is to try to dismiss any responsibility and instead place it on others. In this case, it would be really easy to do that with the Catholic Church, since the examples I’ve used come from that tradition. But we could find the same thing with every denomination, and I’m sure other religions as well. Even further, it continues today, as we see with the fundraising efforts to save Holy Rosary Church and Notre Dame and with every church construction project.
Again, I don’t in any way want to see Holy Rosary Church destroyed, and I’m very thankful for the efforts to save Notre Dame. I’m not sure what the proper answer is to these questions. I can see compelling points both ways. I don’t believe it’s bad to save and restore historical buildings; in fact, I enjoy visiting them and am tremendously grateful that the efforts have been made.
But if we look to Jesus, he spent his ministry on the move and never felt the need to build an elaborate house. If we look even further back to the early Israelites, the Tabernacle was portable and reflected the fact that God’s presence is not static and stationary. Once the Israelites decided to build a permanent temple, they found its permanence to be quite fleeting.
Any church facility is going to cost money; everything in life does. And every decision we make to spend a dollar here is a decision to not spend a dollar somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with having an amazing church building, whether it’s amazing due to its sheer history and majesty or for its modern technological advantages that allow it to serve key roles in the community. The key is pursuing the best use for the money, balancing the needs of the structure with the benefits that will come from it to serve those we’re called to love.
As always, it goes back to our hearts, both individually and as the corporate Body of Christ. Jesus tells us that our hearts should focus on loving God and loving our neighbor. Those two go hand-in-hand, and it doesn’t matter how beautiful our building is if we decide to devote all of our resources to making it look gorgeous to glorify God while leaving our neighbor hungry and cold outside. That building might look spectacular to our eyes, but God doesn’t see that as anything more than an empty shell lacking love and empathy.
God’s priorities place every person above any building, regardless of its history. As much as I want to see these buildings continue to stand, I believe it’s quite clear what Jesus would do if the choice were between saving a building or feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless to save a life.