People without a price

Once upon a time, I served on the board of directors of a large Catholic medical center. Five nuns of the religious community owning and operating the hospital also were members. These sisters and I were a minority. The 18 other directors were wealthy physicians and business figures.

We faced a problem. Our hospital had run out of room. Next door was the campus of a small Catholic college, run by another congregation of nuns. This college specialized in preparing teachers for Catholic schools and Catholic religious education, and the nuns at the college saw themselves involved in a crucial service for the Church.

The college had land, but it had little money. Nevertheless, the nuns at the college had hopes and dreams for expansion.

At every meeting of the hospital board, the issue of more property for the medical center came into the conversation. One director, the president of a very large bank, inevitably would suggest that the medical center simply buy whatever land it wanted from the college.

In one of these discussions, I said that the nuns at the college would never sell a square inch of land. For them, their property was priceless. It was all that they had.

The bank president put me down. “Father, everybody has a price. We should just offer those nuns a figure they cannot refuse.” I said that the sisters at the college had no price. They were going to serve their mission. Period.

As it turned out, I was right. When the board offered to buy the college campus, the nuns at the college simply declined.

All worked out for the best. The hospital eventually acquired other property, and it was able to enlarge its facility.

The bank president never was able to understand it all. “Everybody has a price!” he would insist.

I know a priest who went to college, obtained a degree in business management, was hired by a large stockbroker firm and then decided to go to the seminary. Years later, the senior partner of this firm was quite sick. The priest visited him. The wealthy broker told the priest that if he had stayed at the firm, the priest would have been a multi-millionaire. The priest replied that he had made a better choice.

These examples bring attention to one of the great treasures of the Catholic Church, the utter devotion of its people — not uncommonly priests and nuns — to high spiritual ideals with no regard for financial gain.

They also propose a question for all of us. What truly is important in life?

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has put this question squarely before Catholics, and actually before the whole world. What is important in life? It is not financial success.

Finances are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The Holy Father has forced us Catholics to face this fact.

Actually, Pope Francis is not the first head of the Church to make this point. In this century, Pope Pius XI, Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II made powerful contributions to this philosophy by writing and teaching that any economic system must have as its primary goal the common good, not the profit of individuals.

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Blessed Pope Paul VI brought this concept, brilliantly, into any consideration of rich societies and poor societies. The rich have an obligation to the poor. Helping the poor is not an optional gift to them.

The American culture, profoundly Protestant — especially when it comes to economics — has a hard time accepting these Catholic principles. Frankly, many Catholics have a hard time. Nevertheless, the Church teaches that money is not everything. We truly have a duty to anyone less fortunate.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.