Catholic Herald, 4 November 1988
Chesterton Review, August 1989
Did your bible story book have a picture of Christ clearing the temple? Unlike the simpering image of the Good Shepherd or the cosy nativity scene, mine showed Christ in a towering rage of Old Testament proportions. Captioned “What have you done to My Father’s house?”, He was tipping up coin-laden tables and sweeping out livestock and petty criminals. It must have been a terrifying sight in fact. One would have stopped it sharpish.
Recent events in Lithuania reminded me of that incident. The cathedral in Vilnius was repossessed by the Church and Mass was celebrated there for the first time in 38 years. My eye-teeth are of no use to man nor beast but I would gladly have given them to be there. Half a million were.
Since 1950 the cathedral has been used as an art gallery. It is unlikely that drama on a biblical scale attended the reversion from profane to sacred. More likely it was a low-key affair with agile removal men and pantechnicons, perhaps working under cover of darkness to save a bit of face.
Where have the paintings been taken? No doubt they included works of social realism, perhaps an autumn scene on the Kolkhoz? Such speculation is quite irrelevant but tickles ones curiosity as to the mechanics of the changeover.
They’ll be whooping it up in Chicago, home to the largest number of Lithuanians in the west. In Nottingham, where Father Matulis tends his flock, they will be singing Te Deums. At the church of St. Casimir in London throats will be sore from repeating the glad tidings. And at Keston College they will be tossing their hats – for so long theirs seemed to be the only, lonely voice, crying in the wilderness, alerting us to the true sufferings of our fellow Christians in eastern Europe.
Just two summers ago Lithuanians gathered in Rome, from all over the world, to celebrate 600 years of Christianity – the youngest daughter of the Church. A tiny handful from the homeland itself were permitted to join in. Few there would have believed that within 18 months their cathedral would have been restored to its rightful owners. A quietly tenacious people, the obstinate bravery of the Lithuanians has triumphed in the face of what must often have seemed an implacable foe.
We of the bulldog breed could yet learn a thing or two from all three Baltic states. Has it ever struck you that some of our cathedrals are beginning to resemble art galleries? Not only here but also in Europe? Little shops have cropped up within the very walls. Multi-lingual tours traipse round the treasures. The heels of art lovers grind into the floor brasses.
You pay to enter the crypt or climb the tower. There’s a coffee shop in the vestry. Exhibitions and concerts – in the best possible taste of course – drama and dance happen in the aisles. These things have arrived in places built for worship – of God, not art.
Soaring maintenance costs ought not to justify a creeping secularisation as subtle and insiduous as anything Uncle Joe devised. We must be as steadfastly watchful as the canny Lithuanians lest our churches become temples of commerce, deserving of the wrath of Christ.