Once upon a time, when Catholicism was treated as a foreign, perhaps hostile, intruder in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, Catholics considered it a point of pride when their bishops and priests lived in houses suitable to the aspirations of their people. A bishop’s house had to be the equal of the houses of the politicians who railed against the Catholic foreigners and the businessmen who exploited them.
In the larger historic dioceses, the traditional bishop’s residence often reflected this moment in Catholic history, located in what once was the best part of town or on the highest hill.
But as Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta can testify, times have changed. It was his misfortune to be on the verge of moving into a $2.2 million house in Atlanta’s exclusive Buckhead neighborhood. House prices there range from $500,000 to $20 million, so the Archbishop’s house was not necessarily ostentatious by local standards. His previous residence had sold for $1.9 million, so it was not much of an upgrade either.
Stories about the lavish digs of a few prelates have come and gone before, but when a German bishop was forced to resign after spending $43 million on his house with Church funds, and after Pope Francis himself chose to live in the Vatican hotel rather than the ornate and historic papal household, $2.2 million raised some eyebrows. The story went viral, embarrassing Catholics and suggesting that the bishops were not following the lead of the pope. It is one more sign of the Francis effect: Pope Francis understands intuitively that this is not the time for ostentation and indulgence, most certainly not by his fellow bishops. In a letter to the cardinals he appointed last February, Francis recommended that they eschew lavish parties celebrating the “promotion,” warning them that was not how to mark their new post.
Pope Francis understands intuitively that this is not the time for
ostentation and indulgence, most certainly not by his fellow bishops.
“The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” he told them, asking that there not be “any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”
Not only is this laudable as a reflection of a Church of the poor that serves the poor, but it also can be understood as an act of penance for the crimes and the failure of leadership that were aspects of the sexual abuse crisis.
But the “austerity, sobriety and poverty” that the pope asked of the cardinals, he also is asking of all of us. And of the easy outrage that has been lobbed at a few episcopal mansions, one can ask if we ourselves are living in glass houses.
Indeed, if the world reacts with wonder because the Holy Father seems to practice what he preaches, how would the world react if we did, too? In “The Joy of the Gospel,” the pope extends his challenge to live more simply to the entire Church, and he suggests that even some “who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.”
It is good and just that our bishops be held accountable, but when it comes to living simple and austere lives, we hope such virtue will trickle down to the rest of us.
This Easter season should be one of joy and celebration, but also renewal. As we head toward Pentecost, let us pray that we live the Easter call in its entirety: serving others, not thinking of ourselves and going out to the periphery — bishops, priests and laity all.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor