Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory will sell the $2.2 million residence that he moved into just months ago, following criticisms that his accommodations were too lavish. Archbishop Gregory told the AP, “I have decided to sell the Habersham property and invest the proceeds from that sale into the needs of the Catholic community.” This decision comes in the wake of his very thoughtful, sincere reflection on the subject, in which he wrote:
“We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for. How can we instill this in our children when they see their archdiocesan leadership living extravagantly? We ask you to rethink these decisions and understand the role model the clergy must serve so the youth of our society can answer Jesus’ call. Neither our 18- or 14-year-old sons understand the message you are portraying.”
So went just one of many of the heartfelt, genuine and candidly rebuking letters, emails and telephone messages I have received in the past week from people of faith throughout our own Archdiocese and beyond. Their passionate indictments of me as a Bishop of the Catholic Church and as an example to them and their children are stinging and sincere. And I should have seen them coming.
Please understand that I had no desire to move; however, the Cathedral Parish has a problem, albeit a happy one. The Cathedral of Christ the King is one of our largest, most vibrant and fastest growing parishes—but it is landlocked. The site of the current rectory could be used for expansion if the priests could be moved to a new rectory nearby. Because of the proximity of the Archbishop’s house to the Cathedral and the way it is configured with separate apartments and common space, the rector of Christ the King one day summoned the courage to ask me if I would give some thought to letting the parish purchase the residence from the Archdiocese to repurpose it for its rectory. It made more sense for them to be in walking distance to the Cathedral than I, so I said yes, knowing full well that literally left the Archbishop without a place to live.
Soon thereafter, the Archdiocese and the Cathedral Parish received a generous bequest from Joseph Mitchell, including his home on Habersham Road, to benefit the whole Archdiocese, but especially his beloved parish, the Cathedral of Christ the King. Through the extraordinary kindness of Joseph Mitchell, we had a perfect piece of property nearby on which to relocate the Archbishop’s residence.
Some have suggested that it would have been appropriate for the Cathedral Parish to build a rectory on the Habersham property and have the priests each drive back and forth, and in retrospect that might be true. At the time, though, I thought that not giving up the Archbishop’s residence, which was so close to the Cathedral Parish, would have been perceived as selfish and arrogant by the people at the Cathedral Parish and might damage my relationship with them!
So I agreed to sell the West Wesley residence to the Cathedral Parish and set about looking for a different place for me and my successors to live. That’s when, to say the least, I took my eye off the ball. The plan seemed very simple. We will build here what we had there—separate living quarters and common spaces, a large kitchen for catering, and lots of room for receptions and other gatherings.
What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the Church have changed.
Even before the phenomenon we have come to know as Pope Francis was elected to the Chair of Peter, we Bishops of the Church were reminded by our own failings and frailty that we are called to live more simply, more humbly, and more like Jesus Christ who challenges us to be in the world and not of the world. The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.
As the Shepherd of this local Church, a responsibility I hold more dear than any other, certainly more than any configuration of brick and mortar, I am disappointed that, while my advisors and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.
I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.
I failed to consider the difficult position in which I placed my auxiliary bishops, priests, deacons and staff who have to try to respond to inquiries from the faithful about recent media reports when they might not be sure what to believe themselves.
I failed to consider the example I was setting for the young sons of the mother who sent the email message with which I began this column.
To all of you, I apologize sincerely and from my heart.
We teach that stewardship is half about what you give away, and half about how you use what you choose to keep. I believe that to be true. Our intention was to recreate the residence I left behind, yet I know there are situations across the country where local Ordinaries have abandoned their large homes, some because of financial necessity and others by choice, and they continue to find ways to interact with the families in their pastoral care without the perception, real or imagined, of lavish lifestyles.
Everyone makes mistakes, including archbishops, and thinking about practical matters rather than the full implications of this type of decision seemed to be the expected approach before Pope Francis shifted the focus to building a church of the poor. Yet it is very encouraging to see Archbishop Gregory acknowledge his mistake, apologize sincerely, and rectify it quickly. We can only hope other bishops will follow his lead in embracing Pope Francis’ vision of a church of the poor.