Pope Francis’ personal style has, by example if not by explicit dictum, set expectations for the luxury level acceptable for Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops and priests. The conclave which elected him knew full well his penchant for riding public transportation and for cooking his own meals, so there should have been no surprises, even at the very public actions of paying for his own room, and rejecting the Apostolic Palace in favor of guest quarters. Even the media-dubbed “Bishop of Bling” should not have been surprised when summoned to the Vatican, relieved of his duties, sent to a monastery, and subsequently removed from office. Money and its use matters a lot to Pope Francis.
At least two American prelates had taken their own actions of stepping down their luxury quotient prior to Pope Francis’ election: Cardinal O’Malley in Boston and Archbishop Chaput in Philadelphia, although both were admittedly done in order to pay for sexual abuse claims against priests in those dioceses, prior to their taking office. Nevertheless, their personal willingness to forego the almost institutionalized luxury for simpler accommodations could not have been unnoticed by Pope Francis, and Cardinal O’Malley is rightfully viewed as closest to Pope Francis, being chosen as the only U.S. Cardinal on the committee to reform the Curia, and Archbishop Chaput also having been recently appointed to a special committee of the Pope. It is a bad time for Cardinals and Bishops to be seen as engaging in their own luxury, both because of the expectations of His Holiness, but also because of the re-formed expectations of the media, and of the laity which doubtless sees some privation as atonement for the abomination of sexual abuse of minors. It is understandable if many prelates are not yet up-to-speed on this ‘new world view’ of personal indulgence — not as a validation of success but as an indictment of failure. Yet, we should remember, that priests (except many order priests) do not take vows of poverty. Often the laity is surprised to learn this fact about diocesan priests: Obedience, yes. Celibacy, yes. Poverty, no.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Atlanta Diocese
And, so it was, that Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta got caught in the vise, not vice but vise of lacking sensitivity to the pincers of media attention and the flock’s opinion. Early reports attacked His Excellency and not without some justification, but justification covered by media drool, nevertheless. As we need to be so often reminded, we can judge the fruits, but not the motives. Early emails from friends who followed this story were tinged with outrage at one more seemingly over-indulgent bishop. It was easy to feel annoyed, offended, outraged, shocked. But we only know the man and his motives when he chooses to communicate them. And here is the difference. In a most humble letter, Archbishop Gregory did more than apologize. He bared his soul. Rarely do we see such a modern version of repentance, of humility, of voluntary communication. No spin-meister could ever have written such words. It is a lesson that goes far beyond which apartment the Pope chooses for his living space and whether he wears red shoes or uses a Mercedes or a Taurus. It is a lesson in humility of soul, which is what all repentent actions should reflect, rather than being performances. And, so, Archbishop Gregory’s letter deserves wider distribution, which is only slightly reported in the media’s excerpts of his apology, cherry-picking words that fit the media agenda.
Archbishop Gregory’s Letter in The Georgia Bulletin of the Archdiocese of Atlanta Newsletter
“’We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for. How can we instill this in our children when they see their archdiocesan leadership living extravagantly? We ask you to rethink these decisions and understand the role model the clergy must serve so the youth of our society can answer Jesus’ call. Neither our 18- or 14-year-old sons understand the message you are portraying.’
So went just one of many of the heartfelt, genuine and candidly rebuking letters, emails and telephone messages I have received in the past week from people of faith throughout our own Archdiocese and beyond. Their passionate indictments of me as a Bishop of the Catholic Church and as an example to them and their children are stinging and sincere. And I should have seen them coming.
Please understand that I had no desire to move; however, the Cathedral Parish has a problem, albeit a happy one. The Cathedral of Christ the King is one of our largest, most vibrant and fastest growing parishes—but it is landlocked. The site of the current rectory could be used for expansion if the priests could be moved to a new rectory nearby. Because of the proximity of the Archbishop’s house to the Cathedral and the way it is configured with separate apartments and common space, the rector of Christ the King one day summoned the courage to ask me if I would give some thought to letting the parish purchase the residence from the Archdiocese to repurpose it for its rectory. It made more sense for them to be in walking distance to the Cathedral than I, so I said yes, knowing full well that literally left the Archbishop without a place to live.
Soon thereafter, the Archdiocese and the Cathedral Parish received a generous bequest from Joseph Mitchell, including his home on Habersham Road, to benefit the whole Archdiocese, but especially his beloved parish, the Cathedral of Christ the King. Through the extraordinary kindness of Joseph Mitchell, we had a perfect piece of property nearby on which to relocate the Archbishop’s residence.
Some have suggested that it would have been appropriate for the Cathedral Parish to build a rectory on the Habersham property and have the priests each drive back and forth, and in retrospect that might be true. At the time, though, I thought that not giving up the Archbishop’s residence, which was so close to the Cathedral Parish, would have been perceived as selfish and arrogant by the people at the Cathedral Parish and might damage my relationship with them!
So I agreed to sell the West Wesley residence to the Cathedral Parish and set about looking for a different place for me and my successors to live. That’s when, to say the least, I took my eye off the ball. The plan seemed very simple. We will build here what we had there—separate living quarters and common spaces, a large kitchen for catering, and lots of room for receptions and other gatherings.
What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the Church have changed.
Even before the phenomenon we have come to know as Pope Francis was elected to the Chair of Peter, we Bishops of the Church were reminded by our own failings and frailty that we are called to live more simply, more humbly, and more like Jesus Christ who challenges us to be in the world and not of the world. The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.
As the Shepherd of this local Church, a responsibility I hold more dear than any other, certainly more than any configuration of brick and mortar, I am disappointed that, while my advisors and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.
I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.
I failed to consider the difficult position in which I placed my auxiliary bishops, priests, deacons and staff who have to try to respond to inquiries from the faithful about recent media reports when they might not be sure what to believe themselves.
I failed to consider the example I was setting for the young sons of the mother who sent the email message with which I began this column.
To all of you, I apologize sincerely and from my heart.
We teach that stewardship is half about what you give away, and half about how you use what you choose to keep. I believe that to be true. Our intention was to recreate the residence I left behind, yet I know there are situations across the country where local Ordinaries have abandoned their large homes, some because of financial necessity and others by choice, and they continue to find ways to interact with the families in their pastoral care without the perception, real or imagined, of lavish lifestyles.
So where do we go from here? Read the rest of this entry »