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Living Large: The Scandal of Bishops' Residences


Mark Gordon - published on 09/06/14

moved to a small apartment at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary soon after assuming the leadership of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. He later sold the 16-room mansion to St. Joseph University.

Of course, it is entirely possible for a holy person to live in conditions of opulence and retain a spirit of poverty. Likewise, merely living simply doesn’t tell us anything about the interior disposition of a man or woman. But lifestyle is a symbol, especially in our media saturated age. And, truth be told, living in a certain manner can lead to thinking and acting differently.

Pope Francis has set the bar for his brother bishops in this regard, and it is both lower – in terms of lifestyle – and higher – with regard to self-denial – than anyone expected. Within days of his election as universal pastor, Francis announced that he would not be living in the magnificent papal apartments but in a small suite in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse. Later, he accepted the resignation of Limburg, Germany’s Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the so-called “bishop of bling,” who spent $43 million renovating his residence.

In his apology letter, Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta noted that the movement to a more outwardly humble episcopacy actually predates the ascension of Francis to the Throne of Peter.  He implies that it springs from the sex abuse scandals, in which so many bishops were shown to be detached from the lives of ordinary Catholics, especially victims. That was surely a prime motivation for Boston’s O’Malley, who took over from Bernard Cardinal Law at the height of what Father Richard Neuhaus called “The Long Lent of 2002.”

“Even before the phenomenon we have come to know as Pope Francis was elected to the Chair of Peter,” wrote Archbishop Gregory, “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.”

Whatever the origin, the movement toward greater outward humility and simplicity is here to stay. In a June 2013 address to the Church’s apostolic nuncios – diplomatic representatives of the Holy See who also make recommendations for local episcopal vacancies – the Holy Father described the sorts of men he would be elevating to the episcopacy. “In the delicate task of carrying out inquiries for episcopal appointments,” he said, “be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers, that they are gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life, that they do not have the psychology of ‘Princes.’”

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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Pope FrancisPoverty
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