To Be Happy, Give Up Idolatry and Be Close to the Poor, Afflicted, and Hungry

Embed from Getty Images
via Vatican News:

Pope Francis explained how Jesus, “declares the poor, the hungry, the afflicted, the persecuted blessed while he admonishes those who are rich, well fed, who laugh and are acclaimed by people. He went on to say that the “woe to you” phrase, “addressed to those who are doing well today, serves to “awaken” them from the dangerous deception of selfishness and open them up to the logic of love, while they still have time.”

The Pope emphasized that “the passage of Sunday’s Gospel, therefore, invites us to reflect on the profound meaning of having faith, which consists in trusting the Lord totally… he alone can give our existence that much desired fullness, yet one that is difficult to achieve.”

He noted that, even today, “there are many who propose themselves as dispensers of happiness”: They promise success in the short term”, Pope Francis said, “great profits to be had, magical solutions to every problem, and so on. And without realizing, it is easy to slip into sin against the first commandment: idolatry, replacing God with an idol.”

“That is why Jesus opens our eyes to reality,” the Pope stressed, “we are called to happiness, to be blessed, and we become so from now on in the measure in which we put ourselves on the side of God, of His Kingdom, on the side of what is not ephemeral but endures for eternal life.” He continued, “We are happy if we recognize ourselves as needy before God and, if like Him and with Him, we are close to the poor, the afflicted and the hungry.”


Archbishop Wilton Gregory to Sell $2.2 Million Residence

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.


Top Quotes from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey

Reading Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey, I was struck by the parallels found in his short reflections and Pope Francis’ big themes: the importance of mercy, presence, joy, and being a church of the poor. These themes are deeply rooted in the actions and teachings of Christ. Here are some of my favorites from Nouwen’s book, which offers a short reflection for each day of the year: 

  • Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful, and popular.
  • The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.
  • Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy.
  • We want to hear, “I’ve been thinking of you today,” or “I missed you,” or “I wish you were here,” or “I really love.” It is not always easy to say these words, but such words can deepen our bonds with one another.
  • As John the Evangelist writes, “Perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). Jesus’ central message is that God loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.
  • Love is eternal…When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love…It is the divine, indestructible core of our being.
  • To love is to think, speak, and act according to the spiritual knowledge that we are infinitely loved by God and called to make that love visible in this world.
  • When we truly enjoy God’s unlimited generosity, we will be grateful for what our brothers and sisters receive. Jealousy will simply have no place in our hearts.
  • When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness.
  • Those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church, and that is how it is supposed to be! Thus we are called as members of the Church to keep going to the margins of our society. The homeless, the starving, parentless children, people with AIDS, our emotionally disturbed brothers and sisters—they require our first attention.
  • Being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.
  • When people say of us, “See how they love on another,” they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and are drawn to it as a magnet.


How to Create a Church of the Poor

“This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.” –Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, December 6, 1962.

“How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.” –Pope Francis, March 16, 2013.

As we close in on the end of the first year of Francis’ papacy, we are drawing closer to a Church of the Poor. We are finding unexpected beauty because Pope Francis is helping us explore the totality of what it means to be poor. Poverty doesn’t just have economic and ethical dimensions, but is at the heart of the sacramental mystery we are called to live. We follow a God whose decisive action in history was to become poor, to be with all of us, in the many types of poverty we all experience, but, particularly, socioeconomic poverty. To focus on social justice at the exclusion of the mystery and beauty of the Church is to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, but to focus on the mystery and beauty of the Church at the exclusion of working for social justice is to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ.

When reflecting upon this, I came across a powerful speech given by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna during the first session of the Second Vatican Council. It had an electrifying effect on the listeners as they began to envision how a Church of the Poor could be created. Particularly for Latin Americans, it became a reference point for how to implement Vatican II. As it was then, today the speech is still spellbinding. (Note: this is my translation, based on a Spanish translation of an Italian text, graciously provided to me by Spanish-Latin American theologian Teófilo Cabestrero).

If we can draw any conclusion from the end of this session of our council, it is this: two months of toil and truly generous, humble, free, and fraternal searching, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, have led us to understand better what Vatican II should bring to the people of our time to illuminate their hearts with a light of truth and grace. What we should bring to them, without a doubt, is the intimate mystery of the Church as the “great sacrament” of Christ, the Word of God that is revealed, inhabits, lives, and acts among men and women.

However, we all feel that the Council has lacked something until now: many precious elements remain fragmented without having yet found a vivifying and unifying principle.

Where will we find that vital impulse, that soul, let’s say that fullness of the Spirit? Only through a supernatural act of obedience by each of us and of all the Council to a sign that is becoming increasingly clear and imperative. This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.

I. First of all, I agree with what Cardinal Suenens asked about, and with the clarifications made yesterday by Cardinal Montini [later Pope Paul VI] about the purpose of this Council, the agenda of future work, the order and focus of issues, and, above all, the necessity of a doctrine De Ecclesia(…).

II. But the more specific purpose of my speech is to call attention, even more than has already been done, to an aspect of this mystery of Christ in the Church, which I think is not only perennially essential, but also of supreme current historical relevance. What I mean is that the mystery of Christ in the Church has always been—but today even more so—the mystery of Christ in the poor. Inasmuch as the Church, as the Holy Father John XXIII has said, is indeed the Church of all, today it is especially “the Church of the Poor.”

Reading the analytical index of the framework that was distributed to us yesterday, this gap startled me: in the matters that have been submitted or will be submitted for our consideration and discussion, this essential and primary aspect of the mystery of Christ has not been taken into account in the conscious and explicit way that our historical context makes necessary: the aspect foretold by the prophets as an unmistakable sign of the consecration and messianic mission of Christ (Is 61:1-2 and Lk 4:18); the aspect magnified by the same mother of the Savior in the incarnation of the Word (Lk 1:52-53); the aspect promulgated by the birth, childhood, hidden life, and public teaching of Jesus (Lk 1-4); the aspect which is the fundamental law of the Kingdom of God; the aspect that conditions the entire flow of grace and the life of the Church, from the apostolic community until the hours of the best interior renovation and expansion outside of the Church (Acts 2: 44-45, 4:32-35; 2 Cor 8:9-14); the aspect, ultimately, which will be sanctioned for eternity with reward or punishment in the glorious coming of the Son of God at the end of times. (Mt 25:31-46.)

III. Because of this, in concluding the first phase of our Council, I think we have a duty to solemnly recognize and proclaim that we will not do our duty, nor will we know how to understand the will of God and the hope of men and women for this Council, if we do not center the doctrinal teaching and work of salvation of the Church on the mystery of Christ in the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor.

This is the most clear, most concrete, most relevant, and most imperative duty of a time when, more than any other, the poor do not seem to be evangelized and their hearts seem distant and foreign to the mystery of Christ in the Church. And this in an era in which, on the other hand, human consciousness is questioning and investigating with anxious and dramatic questions the cause of poverty and the destiny of the poor as individuals and as peoples who are becoming newly conscious of their rights. This in an era in which the poverty of so many (two thirds of humanity) is an affront to the excessive wealth of the few, and in which, as never before, poverty is feared and despised by the instinct of the multitudes.

IV. But by pointing out—as others have done—the problem of the evangelization of the poor, I do not intend to add yet another topic to the very long list of topics that the Council has to study.  I feel the duty to say that we will not respond to the deepest and truest exigencies of our time, including our great hope of promoting the unity of all Christians—but rather elude them—if we let the Council deal with the problem of evangelization of the poor of our time as one topic added to the other topics. We are not dealing with one topic, but, rather, in a certain sense, the only topic of Vatican II.

If, as I have said several times—including yesterday—in this hall, the subject of this Council is the Church, we can and should clarify that the formulation most in conformity with the eternal truth of the Gospel and the most appropriate for our current historical situation is this: the theme of the Council is the Church inasmuch as it is particularly the Church of the poor, of all the millions and millions of the poor individually, and of the poor peoples of the whole earth collectively.

V. With the principal and immediate object of the Council specified in these terms, let me make some concrete proposals in view of the work of the next session:

1) That in the work that the Council undertakes from now on, the formulation of the evangelical doctrine of the holy poverty of Christ in the Church find not only a place, but the primary place: the mystery of the divine election that has chosen poverty as a sign and a mode—sacramentum magnum, dico, in Christo et in ecclesia (Eph 5:32)—a preferential sign and mode of the presence and operative and salvific force of the Word Incarnate among men and women.

2) That in our work we give priority to the development of the evangelical doctrine of the eminent dignity of the poor as members of the Church, because they are the members in whom the Word of God Incarnate preferentially hides the radiance of his glory to the end of times.

3) That in all our work and in the new direction of our framework—as many urge—we always make clear and present the very close ontological connection that exists between the presence of Christ in the poor, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that constitutes and provides the foundation of the Church, and the presence of Christ in the hierarchy that teaches and pastors the Church. These are three aspects of one sole mystery.

4) That in every practical problem of the renewal of ecclesiastical institutions and forms of evangelization, we always keep in mind and strive to clarify the historical connection between sincere and consistent recognition of the eminent dignity of the poor in the Kingdom of God and the Church, and the realism of the possibilities and limits of evangelization in our time, including new forms and methods to men and women of our age.

5) If we are obedient to the call of Providence that makes us affirm and seek the primacy of evangelization of the poor, it will not be difficult, with the help of the Spirit of the Lord and of Mary, when considering each practical and doctrinal issue, to find an “authentic” mode of fully presenting—without any trimming—God’s eternal and immutable Gospel. This can be presented in such a way that there will be a union of the human family just as the Father and Christ are one. It will touch hearts and fill with hope the people of our time, especially the poor in the Church of Christ, who being rich became poor in order to enrich us with his grace and glory. (2 Cor 8:9.)”

For further reading, Teófilo Cabestrero’s article, The Primacy of the Poor in the Mission of Jesus and the Church: The Influence of Vatican II in the Episcopal Magisterium at Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo, is excellent. It is available by freely downloading Getting the Poor Down from the Cross.