|Bishop Franz Peter Tebartz van Elst|
Tebartz-van-Elst was a bit of an easy target—not simply because he spent such outrageous funds on the renewal of his diocesan center. Frankly, given the historic nature of the buildings themselves as well as the plan to open a diocesan museum with many historical artifacts available to visitors, much of the expense could be justified—though probably not the 20,000 dollar bathtub, or the 300,000 dollar private chapel. The problem is that the bishop has a bit of a track record of falsifying financial reports to hide his extravagances.
This sort of sense of entitlement has long been closely woven into the clerical state and particularly for prelates. A friend of mine, Father Dominic Monti, is a Franciscan friar. Father Dominic always tells the story of how people, in their generosity, give the friars a bottle of Macallan 15 year old Scotch, or they send a tray of Italian pastries from Ferrara’s on Grand Street, or a pair of tickets to a Broadway Show (orchestra seats, of course) because “nothing is too good for the friars.” And, as Dominic points out, the friars come to believe it and won’t drink their Johnny Walker Red anymore or eat Sara Lee or Entemann’s. And if this is what happens to the green wood, what about the dry? It is very easy for clergy, both religious and secular, to become used to the finer things in life, and it isn’t easy to go back to the farm after you have seen Paree.
When it comes to bishops and their life styles, the culture of opulence is even stronger. There was a day when American Bishops like John England of Charleston or Saint John Neumann of Philadelphia had threadbare clothes and worn out soles. But that day didn’t last. The Michael Augustine Corrigans and George Mundeleins and William O’Connell’s felt that if the Church in American was to come into its own, its bishops had to live like the barons of business who were America’s new-blood nobility. Palatial residences were built and chauffer driven cars were the norm. Rings and pectoral crosses were heavily jeweled. The protocols of the Roman palaces were observed with a silver tray to hold the prelate’s saturno placed in the foyer as a sign that His Excellency (, Grace, or Eminence) was at home. The expectation was that the Bishop would live like the mightiest of his neighbors. Those expectations die hard. Young clerical wanna-be’s get the hunger for the finer things from early on. Read the autobiography of Fulton Sheen. From the time he was a seminarian he never travelled except first class. He set his heart on being a bishop and prayed for that call every day of his life from when he was a young man. And when it came to clothes or housing or graciousness of life, he never compromised. So why are we surprised when men become bishops and will not settle for anything less than the best.
John Joseph Myers, Archbishop of Newark, dined at a rectory some years back before celebrating confirmation there. The Pastor had received the instructions that “His Grace” drinks a particular gin along with some tonic and lemon. He will have a filet mignon along with a baked potato and broccoli for dinner. At dinner, he was showing the clergy his cuff-links and how they matched his episcopal ring. All three were set with Roman coins from the time of Jesus. When a young—and tactless—curate said “that had to put you back a penny or two,” His Grace replied “O, an Archbishop never pays for these things.” Hmmm. Trinkets don’t go on trees.
Well, His Grace had no plans of paying for the 3,000 square foot addition to his vacation home either and now all this is blowing up in his face. Pope Francis has changed the style of life for the Pope You might think bishops would follow suit. Unfortunately, to change the men who have embraced that style is a long slow one-by-one procedure and Francis may well not have the time in his pontificate to do it. Yes, Bishop Tebartz-van-Elst was relieved of his responsibilities as Bishop of Limburg. And yes, Myers was given a strong hint that he is free to resign when he was given a coadjutor Archbishop last autumn—though Myers seems to be too thick to take the clue. But there are dozens, no, scores, of bishops who don’t seem a bit tone deaf to Francis’s new tune. Culture is slow to change, even when the Gospel is so clear in its call to service rather than aggrandizement. But then, while decay often begins at the top (and Italian proverb says that “the fish rots from the head down,” reform usually begins at grass roots. Rather than condemn those prelates who think they are still prelates, perhaps we need to look at ourselves and ask ourselves how we can respond the to the gospel call to be a Church of service to those in need rather than be a Church of pomp and circumstance. It would be great to have shepherds to lead us, but for the interim, the Gospel is more than enough to point out the path.