Last month the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an annual knees-up to raise money for its costume collection. Tickets for the event reportedly cost $30,000, and tables $250,000, and the publicity department is tasked with thinking up cautiously ‘controversial’ themes which will titillate fashion-correspondents without triggering the disapproval of the politically correct. This year’s was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Outfits at the fancy dress party included a predictable rag-bag of angel wings, plastic pontifical rings and heavily-apparelled copes. One entertainer managed to balance a whole Nativity set on her head, and another announced that she had come as the Final Judgment scene from the Sistine Chapel. The media the following morning was particularly taken with a female performer who tottered up the museum’s imposing staircase wearing a shimmering mini dress and a precious-looking baroque mitre described by press agencies as a “pope hat”.
Inevitably, the Provost’s breakfast was interrupted by a telephone call from a reporter asking if the Oratory fathers were offended by a public spectacle of such irreverence. Having explained that most of the fathers had probably never heard of the Met Gala Party, he begged permission to finish his toast and promised to think of something to say as the morning went on. If the journalist had been hoping to hear an explosion of spluttering indignation as lime marmalade went down the wrong way at this end of the telephone line then she must have been disappointed, and she never bothered to ring back for a sound bite.
It wasn’t that the Provost did not try his very best to formulate a protest. He reminded himself that the Holy Mass is the foundation stone of Christian civilisation, and for billions of us around the globe the most sacred event that takes place upon this earth. Parodying the vestments of the altar in what is supposed to be a temple of high culture must surely count as “inappropriate” if anything does. And certainly there was something pitiable about the spectacle of people who like to think of themselves as rather cosmopolitan and sophisticated making themselves look so ignorant and boorish. One could easily imagine these aristocrats of popular culture all shaking their expensively-coiffured heads in solemn accord about the brashness of a certain world leader, without having stopped for a single moment to reflect on the vulgarity of an occasion into which they had seen fit to thrown themselves with such abandon.
The truth, however, is that the Catholic religion does not really ‘do’ taking offence. Perhaps this makes us quaint in a modern culture in which ‘safe-spaces’ and ‘no-platforming’ have become de rigueur, but Our Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek, and the example of those heroes of the Faith like our holy father St Philip who refused to take themselves very seriously, mean that while sticks and stones might break our bones, name-calling and mockery do not generally have the power to provoke us to fits of outrage. Certainly it can be argued that when Our Lord saw the Temple defiled he made a whip and sent the money changers flying, but the fact that in the new dispensation we are all made living temples of the Holy Ghost through Baptism means that most Christians today probably understand that event in the Gospel primarily in terms of self purification with the assistance of God’s Grace.
It is of course possible that the Met’s PR team was hoping to stir up a publicity storm by inciting wild-eyed fanatics to rain down threatening condemnations on the editor of Vogue magazine. If this was the case, they obviously picked the wrong religion. The reaction of a practising Catholic is more likely to be the not so newsworthy response of patience and prayer. While acknowledging the crassness of the occasion, we cannot read the inner secrets of the hearts of the organisers and participants and would not wish to judge their motives as malicious. We can pray for all involved. Perhaps the realisation that they have so publicly associated themselves with such a massive style-fail will help them to take themselves a little less seriously. A good dose of humility is a necessary mix in the foundations for the blessings God wishes to build in all of our lives.
At the London Oratory we still use the traditional style of vestments which largely inspired the costumes at that party. Some of the older sets were bought with generous donations from Irish immigrants who were fleeing famine in the 1850s. Threadbare after centuries of use and therefore of negligible monetary value, they are nevertheless very much part of what St Philip called “the patrimony of the poor.” Worshipping God in such beauty and solemnity at the altar, we should pause to ask ourselves how much we do as a community and a parish to honour Him in the most needy in our city today. If we were neglecting this essential part of the Christian mission it would mean that our use of splendid vestments and vessels in church was at least as grotesque and potentially more offensive to Almighty God than anything on display at that Metropolitan Museum fancy dress party. Examining our consciences regularly and carefully, we shall probably find there is always much room for improvement.
Fr Julian Large