Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Princes of the Church

Carrie and I live in a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment of a little over 1,000 square feet.  Even with the reality that our spare bedroom is still infested with boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked, there is still usually plenty of space for the both of us, even with the reality that I will often work from home one day out of my workweek (in fact, I'm sitting at our kitchen table as I type this).  And the apartment complex has plenty of the same perks that my old bachelor apartment complex had: a small fitness center, a pool, and a hot tub.  It's a nice place to live and we like it very much so far.

It does not, however, hold a candle to any of these digs.

Not one bit.

That CNN article, if I didn't know any better, would have come across as just another piece of real estate porn (admit it, we've all indulged in oohing and aahing over houses we'll never own), but each of the mansions photographed and listed there is occupied by a Roman Catholic bishop/archbishop and is owned by his diocese/archdiocese.

So, um, where do I sign up for that kind of a gig?

Lest this sound like jealousy or envy, I really hope that is not what is actually in my heart right now, because as a fellow preacher of the Gospel of a dirt poor, homeless, itinerant Jewish craftsman, it is difficult not to shudder at how some of the "princes of the church" are living.

(Full disclosure: The church building that my congregation owns and in which it meets, worships, and teaches looks like this.  And this.)

The difference, though, between a church building and a manse (a house for clergy) is that...well, as the sign out on our front lawn says, "Everyone Welcome."  Our big, Gothic revival church building is for everyone, no matter what your socio economic status may be.  Diocesan representatives are quoted in the CNN article as saying that the manses have multiple functions, including use for fundraisers, offices, and that sort of thing.  All of which is great, but that doesn't mean that the property is made open and available to the public at large like a sanctuary is.

And that makes all the difference in the world.  Consider the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke.  Lazarus had to lay at the gate of the rich man's estate: he was not ever allowed inside.  And here is a church (or diocese, really) holding onto multimillion dollar estates in which the poor will never be allowed in because, let's face it, who throws a successful fundraiser by inviting the poor?

I love our church building: it is beautiful and historic, and it reminds me of the significance and weight of the trust that has been given to me by serving as pastor there.  But with God's help, I hope I never, ever live in a home that equals the sanctuary in scale and grandeur.  I pray that God will keep me humble, even though compared to how poverty and homelessness is often experienced, I know that in my heart of hearts that ship has already sailed.

There is one other dimension of the story that I would be remiss if I did not touch on: that several of these bishops and archbishops have nuns acting as household servants for them.  And considering the Roman Catholic Church's general hostility to the ordination of women, I cannot imagine that is a coincidence.  You can be ordained a priest with the knowledge that one day, you may be later consecrated a bishop.  But you can be made a nun only with the knowledge that one day, you may be cooking the bishop's lunch.

Combined with the American bishops' collected ham fistedness towards contraception and family planning, women's ordination, and their shabby treatment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious...no wonder women aren't exactly lining up to become nuns the way they once were.

(And yes, I realize that there are a myriad of other causes for the decline in the recruitment of nuns, and that the number of men becoming priests has dried up as well.  But I can imagine there is some causation involved: the ordination of women has only been increasing in my own denomination, which has been ordaining women for decades now.  Nor is this, or should be, reflective of the Roman Catholic church rank and file religious...I was taught and ministered to at college and seminary by priests and nuns whom I think the world of to this day.)

To their immense credit, other Catholic archbishops have done away with the trappings of pomp and luxury with their homes, Boston's Fr. Sean O'Malley and Philadelphia's Fr. Charles Chaput chief among them.

And in case you're curious about how this all plays out for the rich man in Jesus's parable (spoiler alert! spoiler alert!), the rich man ends up in hell, begging Lazarus to relieve his suffering.  And Father Abraham, on Lazarus's behalf, declines.

That's not how this is all supposed to end for someone ministering and preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus Christ.  Not at all.

It's a harsh lesson of Jesus's, to be sure, but one that must be said, because by cosseting themselves off from this amazing, flawed, beautiful, messy world that God entrusted to us and to which we pastor, the bishops may well be living now in a hell of their own making.

Yours in Christ,

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