I would like a Church that is poor and is for the poor.
It was a little after dawn and Pope Francis was in the chapel of the Serafico Institute of Assisi. The charitable institute treats severely disabled children. Now, as the sun slowly illuminated the windows, more than a hundred of them gathered around the Pope. He greeted each in turn, sometimes caressing their faces, holding their hands or kissing their cheeks. For the remainder of the day, Pope Francis would follow in the footsteps of his 13th century namesake. He prayed at the spot where St. Francis heard Jesus speaking from the cross. He continued to the hall in which the saint stripped off the clothing that marked him as a wealthy man and instead embraced a life of poverty. He conducted Mass at the Basilica of St Francis. At noon he hosted a lunch for the city’s poor and was visibly moved by their stories. Only halfway through his pilgrimage, the Pope urged people everywhere to divest themselves of “worldliness.” He said, “It leads us to vanity, arrogance and pride.” He added the caution that, “without divesting ourselves, we would become pastry-shop Christians, like beautiful cakes and sweet things but not real Christians.” At every stop he made it clear what he wanted—a poor church for the poor.
Meanwhile, 900 miles to the north, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Bishop of Limburg was admiring his newly renovated private residence. With a price tag of $42 million, there was a lot to admire. The stunning private chapel and atrium are ideally suited for episcopal prayer and reflection. The $35,000 conference table will be much appreciated by those attending meetings. The $20,000 bathtub, $500,000 closets and $1.1 million landscaping all contribute to the comfort required of a diocesan bishop. Or maybe not. The outcry from this lavishness has been huge. Particularly offensive to many is the fact that the renovations were completed at taxpayer expense. In Germany roughly 10% of an individual’s income tax is provided to the church. In 2013, this amounted to a $7 billion payday for the Catholic Church alone. Little wonder the Bishop wasn’t pinching pennies.
This is an unhappy clash of visions for the Catholic Church, but it might seem very familiar to anyone in the secular workforce. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst isn’t an evil man, after all. He’s simply guy who worked hard, caught a few breaks and found himself with some authority. The issue is how you handle that authority. Some leaders, like Pope Francis, eschew the trappings of high office, preferring instead to live modestly and with humility. Stunned by the opulence of the papal apartment, he’s chosen to live in the austere Vatican guest house. Rather than the Mercedes, he’s driven about in a Ford Focus. The Bishop’s response is far more typical. It seems some folks believe that control of the budget (or some part of it) entitles them to perks that others don’t enjoy. They often feel their office needs refurbishing. They take liberties with their travel and with their daily comings and goings. They insist on being first in line for the latest technology and aren’t embarrassed when the people who need it are still waiting in that line. Pope Francis calls this the psychology of princes and it’s a malady that you can find someone suffering from in almost every office. Few of us will squander money like the Bishop but his excesses provide a warning for us all. Good stewardship and humility are traits to emulate. We should make the best use of the resources entrusted to us. Most importantly, we should remember that authority doesn’t make us any better than the people we lead. The best leaders put their people at the head of the line and take a smaller share of any largesse for themselves. Think about it. It may be time for you to divest. —Ebert