The Poor You Have Always With You: On the Anointing in Bethany and Certain Self-Styled Traditionalists

Giuliani Maria Magdalena Heiligenkreuz

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came to him a woman with an alabaster vessel full of precious ointment and anointed his head with it as he reclined at dinner. When his disciples saw this they were displeased and said: Why this waste? It could have been sold for a great price and the money given to the poor. Jesus was aware of them and said: Why are you hard on this woman? She has done a good thing to me. For always you have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. When she anointed my body with this ointment, it was for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached through all the world, she will be spoken of, and what she did, in memory of her. (Matthew 26:6-13)

But six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. So they prepared a supper for him there, and Martha served them, and Lazarus was one of those who dined with him. And Mary brought a measure of ointment of nard, pure and precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was full of the fragrance of ointment. One of his disciples, Judas the Iscariot, who was about to betray him said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? But he said this not because he cared anything about the poor but because he was a thief and, being keeper of the purse, used to make off with what had been put into it. But Jesus said: Let her be, so that this can serve for the day of my burial; for the poor you have always with you, but you do not always have me. (John 12:1-8)

The beautiful scene of the anointing in Bethany occurs several times in the liturgy of these days. Hearing it this year I could not help of thinking the way it has been misused by certain soit-disant “traditionalist” bloggers to criticize the Holy Father. The reaction among certain liturgical “traditionalists” to the election of Pope Francis was truly appalling. As Fr John Saward would say: “if anything proves that liturgical renewal is necessary but insufficient for the restoration of all things in Christ, it is these arrogant, intemperate, unjust, and profoundly un-Catholic cyber-tirades.”

Concern for the splendor of the sacred liturgy is laudable, but if certain “traditionalists” would spend more time reading the authentic witness of Apostolic tradition found in the Church Fathers, they would see how odd it is to use the anointing in Bethany as to attack the Holy Father’s concern for una Chiesa povera e per i poveri. A glance at the Catena aurea for Matthew and John shows that the Fathers read this passage as signifying (at one level) the love that we should show Christ in the poor. 

What do our “traditionalist” friends make of Our Lord’s saying “me you have not always with you”? Remigius of Auxerre writes (on Matthew), “they were not to be blamed who ministered of their substance to Him while He dwelt in a mortal body; forasmuch as the poor were ever in the Church, to whom the believers might do good whensoever they would, but He would abide in the body with them but a very short time.” Of course Our Lord is always with us in the Blessed Sacrament, but of what sort is His presence? Real, true, and substantial, but untouched by the accidents of  this place. He has no need to be anointed. Indeed, by natural concomitance He is surrounded by all the splendor of Heaven (St Thomas teaches that all the accidents of Christ’s glory are present in the Eucharist in the mode of substance).

Thus St John Chrysostom teaches that offering golden vessels for the liturgy profits only the one who offers, but that by helping the poor we help Christ Himself:

Even so do thou honor Him with this honor, which He ordained, spending your wealth on poor people. Since God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls. And these things I say, not forbidding such offerings to be provided; but requiring you, together with them, and before them, to give alms. For He accepts indeed the former, but much more the latter. For in the one the offerer alone is profited, but in the other the receiver also. Here the act seems to be a ground even of ostentation; but there all is mercifulness, and love to man. For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being an hungered, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Do you make Him a cup of gold, while you give Him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Himself you afford not even the necessary covering?

Applying this to Bethany he writes:

Why then does He Himself say, ‘The poor always you have with you, but me you have not always?’ Why, for this reason most of all should we give alms, that we have Him not always an hungered, but in the present life only.

In other words, Chrysostom read the passage as teaching us to seize the moment of this mortal life when we can give comfort to Christ in the poor, since soon we shall be in glory, where none will have need of us.

Returning to the Catena (on John) Augustine writes, “if you have a superfluity, give to the poor, and you have wiped the Lord’s feet; for the hair is a superfluous part of the body.” The Holy Father clearly understands this teaching, and is determined that we should as well–witness his asking the Argentine bishops to give to the poor the money they would have spent coming to Rome for the Mass in which he received the signs of the Petrine Office. This gesture of the Holy Father’s was the object of what was perhaps the most absurd “traditionalist” attack, by a blogger called “Mundabor” (though the competition for most absurd is tight). Mundabor argues that “specific, perfectly legitimate activities” should never be “targeted as something whose cost can be saved and ‘given to the poor instead.'” He then writes:

it seems to me a mainstay of said sound Catholic thinking that whilst everyone has an obligation to give according to his means and station in life, no one has any right to demand – and even the suggestive “asking” is inappropriate indeed – that such and such expenses be allocated to the poor instead. This makes perfect sense; then whatever you spend gives a livelihood to someone else.

And this man calls himself a traditionalist? Those thoughts owe nothing to Catholic tradition and a great deal to the ideas of 18 century liberalism, which elevated selfishness and avarice to virtues (after all, they serve the “growth” of the capitalist Ponzi scheme). Mundabor is a traditionalist in name only; in fact he’s a liberal. Has he ever read the Angelic Doctor? Surely St Thomas is a “traditional” thinker. Consider the following:

According to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” (IIaIIae 66,7,c)

As a certain theologian recently pointed out to me in conversation, the “blogisterium” of these “traditionalists” in general shows that they are really a bunch of liberals. They have no interest in being guided and ruled by the Vicar of Christ, the authentic guardian of tradition. What they really want to be guided by is their own private opinion, and so they only consider those elements of tradition which suit their opinions. They profess God with their lips, but they actually serve the devil.

8 thoughts on “The Poor You Have Always With You: On the Anointing in Bethany and Certain Self-Styled Traditionalists

  1. While I was more than pleased by the Holy Father’s suggestion that those in Argentina not travel and instead give the money to the poor, I have a lot of sympathy for those who fear a further watering down of the wine.

    If the Holy Father had suggested that no one from anywhere come to Rome, but instead give their money to the poor, the merchants of Rome would have been the first to second Mundadors’ “ponzi scheme”.

    And if the Holy Father were to forego the kinds of events that encourage tourism to Rome, I wonder if he would be doing his duty as Bishop of Rome because care of souls required care first of the flesh.


      • In regard to self-indulgence, telling the Argentinians not to come, while not saying a word about the americans seems a bit strange if that was the reason behind telling Argentinians not to come to Rome.

        My daughter’s college, Christendom, virtually shut down because everyone went to Rome, that is much more self-indulgent. And I have no doubt that all those I know who seek the Catholic limelight had plane tickets in hand and rooms booked within the day Pope Benedict announced his leaving the office.

        Consumerism Catholic style is common enough, but the Argentinians going to Rome is less about consumerism and more about a celebration of one of their own.

        But more to the point, consumerism Catholic style is what supports Rome’s tourism, it may be pernicious in the long run, but starvation in the short run is far more debilitating, and in that regard the commentator you castigated did have a reasonable argument.


  2. Pope Francis’ devotion to this forgotten and beautiful dimension of Christianity is at one with his obvious Marian piety. Indeed, one wonders what these irritated and so-called ‘traditionalists’ make of Our Lady’s Magnificat, and her repeated references to the poor, the Hebrew “anawim”? With Mary, Pope Francis is reminding us of these, the little ones of the world. Let us listen to him.


    • That is a good point about the connection to his Marian piety. I’m not sure to what extent this dimension of Christianity is any more forgotten than other dimensions. Blessed Mother Teresa is still a living memory to most of us, and there are lots of people (including lots of traditionalists) who serve Christ in the poor. But of course Pope Francis gives us the opportunity to intensify our devotion to our Lord in the “anawim.” I’m happy to say some traditionalist bloggers have welcomed this. For example the Italian blogger Cordialiter:


  3. The Holy Father’s moderation of the papal liturgy along with his comments about the desired poverty of the Church seem to imply that he feels there is a relationship between the splendour of the liturgy and the provision the Church makes for the poor. Presumably some people feel this is an unfair suggestion and that the faithful have more than enough resources to provide for the poor and for the worthy service of the altar. Presumably they also feel that the implied relationship is a distraction from the inadequacy of the provision made for either. Furthermore, while the faithful may indeed neglect the poor materially, the essence of the problem lies in the principle upon which wealth is acquired not the mere quantity or distribution. Here perhaps the true negligence lies in the coyness of the holders of the teaching office in proposing the divinely revealed truth concerning the true function of money. In this (as in other matters) there have been shepherds, who have not, as becomes Apostolic authority, extinguished the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by their negligence.

    This in turn underlines the fact that the prudential judgements of Popes about liturgical style or when and how much to teach are not guaranteed by God and that it is not the role of the faithful to imitate the apologists of the late USSR in frantically discerning why the Pope is necessarily right in every such prudential judgement. One only has to apply this prudential infallibility idea to previous centuries to see its absurdity. The faithful do not need to be guided and ruled by the Vicar of Christ, the authentic guardian of tradition (whether Benedict XVI, John XII, Celestine V, Boniface VIII or Francis) in their choice of footwear or transportation, liturgical composers, prose style or missionary strategy. When, however, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he undoubtedly possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.


  4. Pingback: On Legitimate Disagreements with the Successors of the Apostles in Prudential Matters | Sancrucensis

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