Roman Catholic bishops, some more quickly than others, appear to be learning from the example that Pope Francis — their leader and the leader of Roman Catholics the world over — has set since he was chosen last year.
This pope, unlike his predecessors, has declined to live in the opulent papal residence in Vatican City and likes to get around town in a Ford Focus. He’s also urged other church leaders to adopt “more humble lifestyles.”
What has gotten the most attention were his actions against German Bishop Franz Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose estimated expenses in the remodeling of his residence exceeded $40 million before Pope Francis shut him down last fall. For that, as well as for the use of church money for travel to India, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, whose Limburg diocese has about 650,000 members, has been labeled the Bishop of Bling and Bishop Deluxe.
A tactful but pointed statement released by the Vatican said the bishop’s actions had created a situation “where in the present moment he cannot exercise his Episcopal ministry.”
Even before suspending the German bishop, Pope Francis made his position clear. Last summer, he said, “It breaks my heart when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model of car. Cars are necessary, but take a more humble one. Think of how many children die of hunger.”
The pope’s message hasn’t been lost on American bishops, many of whose residences run from comfortable to deluxe. In some cases, parishioners have helped Pope Francis press his case.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia sold a mansion his predecessors called home and moved into an apartment in a local seminary. Across Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s bishop put his mansion up for sale two weeks after he moved in, and also opted for a seminary apartment. Also, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston sold his predecessors’ Italianate palazzo and moved into a cathedral rectory.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta found himself apologizing for plans to turn his own residence over to priests and have a 6,000-square-foot mansion built at a cost of $2.2 million on donated land.
Parishioners in Newark, N.J. are making their displeasure clear with their archbishop’s plans to spend $500,000 to expand a weekend residence, and the faithful in nearby Camden are displeased with their bishop’s decision to buy a 7,000-square-foot home for $500,000.
The movement of church leaders to part with some of their more conspicuous perks won’t correct all that is wrong with the Catholic Church, but those who practice what they preach are setting an example worth following.