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A MEMO TO THE CHURCH AT A CRITICAL POINT: NOW IS TIME TO SHED WORLDLINESS AND HEED POPE'S CALL FOR SIMPLICITY
There is danger on the one hand in the way a liberal media have interpreted some of the Pope's remarks about matters such as homosexuality and equal danger when it comes to those, of other political views, who, in their criticality, may come a bit too close to diverging from the Magisterium. However matters pan out in the end (we always wait to see), all can agree on how the Holy Father has set a sterling example with his direct-speak and simple way of living: not in ornate, regal apartments, but in what amounts to a spare room in sort of a dorm with fellow priests. He is also reducing the Vatican bureaucracy and reining in its bank. It is a crucial development in a Church that had in some aspects lost its way, when it comes to secularism, allowing the world to affect it more in many cases than the Church was affecting the world: not just with high living and expansive, fluorescent office facilities (soft light, as in candles, seems more appropriate), but with a conduct more befitting politics and bureaucracy -- more in kinship with a legislative body, or a large company -- than with prayerfulness. Our bishops are by and large great men who have sacrificed a "regular" life for God. This is also true for our priests. In our own diocese is a bishop who (along with his predecessor) has set such an excellent example of authenticity that there are more than thirty vocations (in a diocese of just over 160 priests).
But one must admit that problems persist in many dioceses. These pertain mainly to worldliness. Francis drives a Ford Focus, and that has set laity to understandably question the living standards of certain bishops who live in homes fit for multi-millionaires and are taken about in a Cadillac or Mercedes. In Europe, the Pope has famously dismissed a bishop who was constructing a $43-million home, and in the U.S., an archbishop who once headed the national bishops' conference has announced that he is reviewing a highly controversial decision to build himself a $2.2 million home and has apologized to his flock, an act of humility that is likewise worthy of emulation. It is a simple fact that the laity have been largely overlooked, Western materialism has been embraced, and that in some dioceses a regular churchgoer would have no chance competing with a millionaire (who doesn't so frequently attend church) when it comes to a meeting with the bishop. This way of conducting matters -- favoritism based on wealth -- must come to a screeching halt. Does a Pope entertain a visit from a queen? Yes. But also, he touches a man with a disfigured face. A country club is not always the best place for ministry. And so the change emanating from Rome is crucial and has come at a time when the Church was in danger of permanently compromising itself. The strain between clergy and laity reached an extreme with the abuse crisis, which not only (and by far most gravely) violated youngsters (including, no doubt, potential priests, for many were altar boys) but has cost the American Church two billion dollars (2,000 million) in just the past ten years.
This is worth donning sackcloth, during the present time of year. It necessitates something with more permanence than public apology. The two billion would have been enough to fund the annual cost of care for more than 34,000 women and men religious past age 70 for two full years. (In 2012, of 548 religious communities submitting data to the National Religious Retirement Office, only forty-six were adequately funded for retirement; 153 were less than twenty percent funded.) It could also have gone a significant way in assisting struggling Catholic schools, especially grammar ones (which often inspire boys to consider the priesthood). In Newark, New Jersey, another bishop has come under public scrutiny for building a large addition to his own retirement home (three fireplaces, an indoor pool, and 3,000 additional square feet of living space) while that diocese has shuttered schools. In some places, such as Albany and Buffalo, New York, major shrines have badly deteriorated due to a crisis in funding (see, the Shrine of the Holy Martyrs in Auriesville, or Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Youngstown). Our bishops for the most part are wonderful, dedicated men, often fighting the currents of the time (from both the far left and right). We need to fight -- and detach -- a bit more. Cardinal Sean O'Malley ridded the diocese of an Italianate palazzo it used for the episcopal residence, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia did the same, selling a mansion and moving into an apartment at a seminary. We also need to heed the Pope's admonitions on clericalism -- the elevation of the priesthood into sort of a royal ecclesiastic class -- instead of shepherds there with the flock (taking on the aroma of the sheep, as Francis puts it). A bishop does not want to resemble a feudal lord more than an ascetic. The Church regains credibility with the public -- even the secular public, and even the non-religious (and often anti-religious) media -- the more it imitates Jesus.
It is difficult to imagine Christ in a limousine; His very first symbol was a manger. This time of year, a donkey was his mode of transportation. He fasted and prayed and placed His Hands on the flock, out there among them, as now the Pope exhorts priests and bishops to do; treating the flock gently and directly. We have a long list, an almost endless list, of saints to set the standard. "The less we have here," said Saint Teresa of Avila, "the greater will be our joy in Heaven, where our dwelling shall correspond to the love with which we imitated the life of poverty of our Divine Master here on earth.
To be pleasing and acceptable in the sight of God, said Saint Alphonsus Liguori, "we must therefore banish from our hearts the desire to appear before men to win their approval and applause, and especially the desire to rule over others."
It is the right and duty of laity of remind our dear hierarchy and local rectory, when reminders might bear fruit -- to do so with respect for an authority that clergy should still and always maintain, as representatives of Jesus on earth, as special people (Our Lady's beloved sons). There are so many great priests! There are so many good bishops. But this is another thing the Pope has proclaimed: that those who spot shortcomings "make a mess" (raise their voices, with respect) in the diocese. He didn't really mean to make a mess, but those who have watched matters go on for so long (traditional, august church after traditional, august church closed, while diocesan offices expand) get the point. In Syracuse, New York, a former church will become a mosque (with the crosses cut down). This is entirely unacceptable, no matter the finances. We need to reverse course, back to Jesus. Poverty of spirit, said Saint Alphonsus, consists in the desire to possess nothing but God. His book The Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation (get one for your pastor) presents an intense roadmap. Or Imitation of Christ. Perhaps they have this. Perhaps not. It is a book and a lesson not just for bishops and priests, not just for office staff, but for us all, for everyone who seeks to be a true Catholic, for all who pray during this time in the desert.
[Note also: Michael Brown retreats: Philadelphia-New Jersey]
[resources: The Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation and Imitation of Christ]
[see also: The Francis effect: opulence is out]
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