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


In Germany, on the other hand, many bishops apparently haven't come to terms with Francis's insistence that they set a credible example of poverty. The costly new residence of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the bishop of Limburg in western Germany, is only one especially conspicuous example of the pomposity, or at least the pronounced attachment to prestige, of the country's Catholic Church leaders.

Testifying to Historic Power

Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for example, lives in three private rooms at Holnstein Palace, the rococo-style traditional residence of the Archbishop of Munich in the city center that has just undergone a renovation costing millions. The church spent about €2 million ($2.7 million) on the palace, and the owner, the State of Bavaria, donated another €6.5 million. One of the paintings hanging in rooms adorned with exquisite frescoes and chandeliers is of Marx himself. As if that weren't enough, the archdiocese also spent about €10 million on a villa in Rome that now serves as a "guesthouse." In other German cities, such as Regensburg, Bamberg and Fulda, the Episcopal residences still testify to the historical power of their residents.

Counterexamples are rare. Berlin Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki came into office with the reputation of being an archconservative, but then he sought dialogue with gays and lesbians and met with asylum seekers. He lives in an attic apartment in Berlin's Wedding neighborhood, which has a large immigrant population. He celebrated Christmas at the Franciscans' soup kitchen, and he often chooses his bicycle over his official car, a BMW. His counterpart in the southwestern city of Freiburg, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, lives in a modest row house.

This week Zollitsch, 75, is chairing the German Bishops' Conference in Fulda for the second to last time. A new chairman will be elected at the next conference, in February 2014, when the cities of Cologne, Freiburg, Erfurt and Passau will also likely receive new bishops. A change of generations is in the offing, but there are few choices.

The change of course in Rome could confound the rankings among top Catholics. For instance, Marx, as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, a man with moderate views and a powerful organization, had been considered a frontrunner to succeed Zollitsch. But now the more modest Woelki, from the impoverished Berlin archdiocese, is seen as a more likely candidate for the important office.

Touching People's Hearts

Francis is constantly doling out advice to bishops old and new. "The first reform must be the attitudes," the pope said in an interview with the Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica. The Holy Father wants bishops to shift their focus away from themselves and toward the Catholic faithful. He wants them to take risks by breaking the rules, get out of their "comfort zones," and go directly to the people and touch their hearts, be it in parishes, prisons or dormitories for asylum seekers. All of these things are difficult to do in splendid robes and BMW sedans, or from behind the walls of palatial residences.

In general, Pope Francis is warning priests against withdrawing to their ivory towers, a very real danger under Benedict XVI. "This church … is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people," he said. "We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."

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