Tags: bishops | residences | Pope Francis | luxurious | frugal | theme | papacy

Living Large: The Scandal of Bishops' Residences

By    |   Friday, 24 October 2014 08:31 PM

Some Have Already Anticipated Pope Francis' Move Toward Simpler Lifestyle

Camden, N.J., is one of the poorest cities in the United States. The city's median household income is $25,681, half of the overall U.S. figure. The unemployment rate is twice the national average and 40 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line. Camden is so broke that two years ago it laid off its entire police force and reformed under a county policing arrangement.

Given these desperate realities, it was a shock earlier this year when reports surfaced that Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the new leader of the Diocese of Camden, had spent half a million dollars to purchase a 20-room mansion in the leafy suburb of Woodbury. The Camden Diocese, which covers the six counties that make up the lower third of the state of New Jersey, has in recent years closed 40 percent of its parishes and numerous schools in an effort to save money.

Criticism of the purchase was immediate, widespread, and fierce. One Catholic resident, Chalky Ottinger, wrote a letter to a local newspaper that summed up the reaction of many.

"We need a lot of things in the diocese," she wrote. "We need money to finance schools, finances to resolve our debt and funds to help the poor. What we do not need is another home or mansion, especially one that costs $500,000 just so the bishop can live in luxury."

For its part, the Diocese insisted that the purchase was a legitimate investment — and it may have been — but that didn't quiet the controversy.

Camden's Bishop Sullivan isn't alone. In late March, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta apologized for building and moving into a $2.2 million mansion on a piece of donated land in the tony Buckhead section of town.

"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," wrote Archbishop Gregory, who has moved out and put the house on the market.

In February, it was revealed that Newark Archbishop John Myers was spending half a million dollars on a three-story, 3,000-foot addition to his $800,000, five-bedroom weekend residence in Franklin Township.

Archbishop Myers plans to retire to the addition when he hands over the leadership of Newark to his successor in two years. The addition features a hot tub, an indoor exercise pool, and other amenities. As in other places, Newark has closed parishes, schools, and ministries to the poor in recent years, yet Archbishop Myers hasn't responded directly to the seeming disconnect.

Just last month, Daniel Burke, editor of CNN's "Belief Blog," published an article that looked at the homes of 10 American archbishops. Some of Burke's findings are disturbing: The six-bedroom, bayside home in which Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami lives with one other priest, his secretary.

The $1.4 million, 11,000 square-foot "palace" that is home for St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and his priest-secretary. And the $30 million, 15,000 square-foot Vanderbilt manse on Madison Avenue that Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York shares with three other priests.

Burke goes on to note, properly, that not all American prelates live so well. Nine days after taking over as Archbishop of Boston, Sean Cardinal O'Malley announced he would move from the Italianate mansion his predecessor occupied into a rectory apartment next to a housing project in Boston's South End.

"As a Franciscan brother," said Cardinal O'Malley at the time, "I prefer to have the simplest quarters."

Another Capuchin friar, Archbishop Charles Chaput, put the $10 million residence he inherited up for sale and 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 guest house. 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.

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Camden, N.J., is one of the poorest cities in the U.S. So it was a shock earlier this year when reports surfaced that Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the new leader of Camden Diocese, spent half a million dollars to buy a 20-room mansion in the suburb of Woodbury.
bishops, residences, Pope Francis, luxurious, frugal, theme, papacy
Friday, 24 October 2014 08:31 PM
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