These past few years have witnessed the refreshing and hopeful comments and kindnesses of Pope Francis. His words are always followed by sincere gestures of affection and mercy. He leads by living example. Unfortunately, that example is not having either a cerebral or emotional impact on many bishops, especially in this country. In fact, there are a few who enjoy ridiculing Francis’ words of mercy as merely vacuous. Those few bishops clearly tarnish the ministerial work of those who find comfort in Francis’s ministry.
This dismissive attitude speaks eloquently to the quality of these critics and their disdain for Francis. It is a disdain clothed in a princely vesture rather than in the common tweed of a diverse community of believers. The amazing thing is that the Spirit works despite this self-aggrandizement by so-called servants of the People of God. The faith of the laity in the gospel message is deeply rooted, although tested these days. Such faithful loyalty cannot be an excuse for simply tolerating the absence of transparency, the exorbitant lifestyles, or cover-up machinations by the anointed overseers.
Dedicated faithful and spirit-filled priests labor daily within their local communities and suffer needlessly because of such scandalous living. It is these priests who are more often confronted by the doubters, the offended and those who have abandoned the church. Through no fault of their own these priests are compelled to defend the indefensible.
Hypocrisy is the antithesis of integrity. Many of these anti-Francis bishops preach in their gilded robes with aides fluttering around them. They are narcissists flattered by their courtiers. Yet it is in the parish pews, the hospitals, the shelters and the classrooms that the beauty and simplicity of the gospel message becomes credible. It is where the priests are living, working, preaching and witnessing. How many of our American bishops dwell in inner cities by their address and their lifestyle. Pope Francis regularly visited the slums of Buenos Aires. It was because he was among the poor and the disenfranchised that the Gospels were refreshed for him. He was not to be found in the luxurious and redecorated homes that—more often than not—are far above the median lifestyle of the people within his archdiocese.
This is a time of transformation and cleansing. The Pope could not have chosen a better name for himself by which to witness. Yet the appreciation of his selection is so easily missed or denied by many American bishops. The Renaissance-tinged times with all their gilded trappings and privileges need to be removed. The laity needs to refrain from falling prey to the silliness of financially supporting the Church’s works of charity as their Ordinaries divert funds for their personal lifestyle, refuse financial transparency and arrange for costly abuse cover-ups. It is simple: the privilege of office must be replaced with humble service in ministry.
The laity, priests and religious have an absolute right to know and challenge the Ordinary when gospel values are superseded by personal priorities and colleague protection. Why should an Ordinary receive any more in salary or retirement than the priests within his diocese? Why should an Ordinary live above his people?
Priests have been removed with seemingly facility. Yet Bishops’ predatory and cover-up behavior has been tolerated by their brother bishops. There is no smell of the sheep while clothed in the rich raiment of a Renaissance prince. The hierarchical culture of Game of Thrones is seen for its power and prestige. Why should not an Ordinary simply be ordinary? It is in the Gospels after all.
Dr. John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University.