Cardinal Cupich and Andy Warhol on the Essence of Church

Andy Warhol’s “Camouflage Last Supper” referenced by this post’s author

Where is Christ in this Andy Warhol print? He’s hard to see under the military camouflage.  That’s what Cardinal Blase Cupich thought, too, when he saw the print at a recent Chicago exhibit of Warhol’s works.  Again and again the gay artist and pop icon Warhol masked Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting “The Last Supper” by overlaying blocks of color, commercial insignias, or camouflage—as Cupich says, “forcing the viewer to look for the otherwise familiar image of the Lord at table.”

When Cupich wanted to explain the connection between baptism and social ministry at the recent Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, he drew on none other than Warhol, an artist with a complicated relationship to the Church.  As Warhol powerfully demonstrates, ideology, institutions, and even well-meaning projects can make Christ hard to see.  Too often, Cupich said, we start with ourselves, not Christ, listing the good works we Christians do for those needy people out there, as if social ministry were a one-way project.

To be sure, social ministry involves acting for justice. But it should start not with self-evaluation or with slogans. Cupich, like Warhol, thinks we need to turn our gaze in another direction.  Following Pope Francis, he insists that:

“the pursuit of a holy life is about encountering this Christ who is already active and present, and joining in his saving work of building the Kingdom of God.”

This is not a matter of individual spirituality, Cupich insists, quoting Argentinian theologian Lucio Gera. Gera writes that the pursuit of the holy life is about what it means to be the Church, the People of God, saying:

“The Church takes place as intercommunion between human beings — not only as relationship of humans with God but as interrelationship of human beings among themselves. The relationship with the other is not simply something added to a Church already constituted by a relationship with God. The relationship with the other is also constitutive of the Church, that is, it is set within the very essence of being Church.”

For Cupich, wherever people are in relationship, there is Church, with Christ in their midst: community “is where God works and manifests himself in bringing about the Kingdom of God.” No relationship, no Church. Find relationship, find Christ.  It’s biblical: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20).

Cupich’s talk contains more gems on politics, Vatican Council II, and openheartedness. Here, I want to dwell on Cupich’s insistence that “the relationship with the other”—particularly loving relationship forged in poverty or exclusion—is not an addition to the Church, it is the Church itself.

Often LGBTQ Catholics experience Catholic hierarchs as discriminatory, Catholic schools as danger zones, Catholic sacraments as points of pain, and Catholic appeals for social ministry funding as problematic.  If we are still in church at all, we tend to stand at the edges of our parishes.  We build our lives and our Christian hope in relationships: partnerships and friendships, LGBTQ ministry groups, social service work, and gestures as simple as the sign of peace at Mass or a hug at a coffee shop.

Even in welcoming parishes these relationships can feel like a second-best, makeshift version of Church, a substitute for full recognition and legitimate participation in the “official” Church.  But as Cardinal Cupich said, relationships are “constitutive of the Church.” They are where Christ is most really present. LGBTQ Catholics, it turns out, are not on the margins of the Church at all. Instead, we have among the most powerful possible practices and experiences of Church—and of Christ.

As Cupich makes clear, this experience of Church-as-relationship is not a matter of lording it over others. Rather, just as other socially disadvantaged persons minister and reveal Christ to the social justice workers who serve among them, our liveliness in Christ can enliven those who minister to and with us, expanding the community of love.

Take another look at da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  We recognize Jesus only as part of a gathering of friends around a table; without them he’d simply be a man with bread and cup.  Da Vinci painted the mural for the dining hall of the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan—a place where friends gathered to thank God and break bread, in relationship. Where two or three are gathered in love and service, Christ is at work. Join in.

–Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, February 4, 2020

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