The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Book Reviews

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown

Karl Shuve

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in the early evening hours of March 13, 2013, he took a name—Francis—that no previous pontiff had chosen. It was a weighty decision to link his papacy symbolically with Il Poverello, the little poor man of Assisi, whose Order of Friars Minor came to be viewed with suspicion by the medieval Roman Catholic Church for its teaching that Christ and the apostles owned no possessions. But in allowing the themes of humility and poverty to shape his papacy, Pope Francis has endeared himself to the many people, within and outside the Catholic Church, who have difficulty reconciling the church’s immense wealth with the teachings of Christ found in the Gospels. Whether in the spectacular Gothic architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris, the sumptuous surroundings of Vatican City, or the glittering mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, one can sense the seeming contradiction between the church’s lavish expenditure of resources and Jesus’s command to the rich young man that if he wishes to obtain eternal life, he must sell all that he owns and “give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21, New Revised Standard Version). How can such ostentation stand alongside the radical proclamation in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor”? Something, it seems to many, has gone remarkably wrong.

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