Austere Example: Pope's Message at Odds with Bishops' Lifestyle

PHOTO: Pope Francis

At the Vatican, a down-to-earth Pope Francis has been preaching humility and modesty. Many bishops in Germany, however, are having a hard time embracing a more austere lifestyle.

Last week Rudolf Voderholzer, 54, the bishop of the Bavarian city of Regensburg and one of Germany's younger church leaders, was taken to task at the Vatican by the pope himself. In an admonishment to the German bishop and others attending a seminar for new bishops in Rome, Francis said: "Be close to the people and live as you preach. Always be with your flock, do not succumb to careerism and ask yourselves whether you are truly living as you preach."

This is a new message for German princes of the church. Many of them have long cultivated a lifestyle oriented toward strict dogmas, prestige and a career within the church, much like former Pope Benedict XVI. But now that his successor arrives at meetings in an old car, there has been a fundamental shift. Loyalty to the pope is being completely redefined, and not just in Regensburg, where Voderholzer's predecessor Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a fervent devotee of former Pope Benedict, alienated many Roman Catholics.

This week, German bishops have a chance to discuss what the change at the Vatican means for them, as they meet for their annual Bishops' Conference in the central German city of Fulda. There hasn't been this much uncertainty within their ranks in a long time.

Conservative Benedict fans, led by Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, see their influence waning, as much of what had been valuable and important to them is now frowned upon. On the other hand the reformist camp, weakened for years, has yet to gather its forces. Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, systematically suppressed open-minded voices within the German clergy. Now the remaining liberal priests are only gradually coming out of the woods.

An Old Fiat as a Popemobile

For now, the major theological issues are not open to debate. Under Francis, change begins in everyday life. "It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car. You can't do this," he told the young priests and nuns. "Cars are necessary. But take a more humble one. Think of how many children die of hunger and dedicate the savings to them."

While the new pope travelled in an old Fiat to visit African refugees on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, Meisner is chauffeured around his Cologne archdiocese, which has a worldwide reputation for being especially affluent, in a BMW 7 Series. Most German bishops, from Munich to Würzburg to Osnabrück in the north, drive luxury sedans, preferably made by Audi, BMW or Mercedes.

This has prompted the organization German Environmental Aid to criticize the country's Catholic Church leaders for being "over-motorized" and thus responsible for high pollutant emissions. Even the car magazine Auto Bild opined that by driving these vehicles, the bishops help to "bolster social acceptance of luxury cars."

And Francis is not stopping at expensive cars. Church dignitaries were also forced to acknowledge another message from Rome, namely that for a Christian, happiness does not hinge on owning the latest smartphone, or living in luxury. Instead of residing in the Apostolic Palace, the pope has permanently moved into an ordinary room at the Santa Marta guesthouse in Rome.

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