Whoever experiences poverty in person will discover the true greatness of God.
These are the words of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, 52, the bishop of Limburg, a very pictureque small city in western Germany near Frankfurt.
According to this report, he also told his flock in a Christmas sermon to sate their thirst with water not wine:
Renewal begins where the efforts toward making due with less are made. The person of faith is dirt poor and rich in mercy.
Well, right now, Franz-Peter’s poverty sermons are looking just a tad hypocritical, given that he has blown about $42 million on tarting up his palatial residence.
Catholics in Limburg are outraged – especially given that funds are tight or insufficient across the diocese. There isn’t enough money for the upkeep of churches, and parishes are being consolidated. What’s more, funding for Catholic day care centres is being slashed. All of this is part of the bishop’s tough cost-cutting measures.
Ever since construction on the bishop’s complex began and the extent of his lavish became known, the atmosphere among Limburg’s Catholics reportedly been poisoned.
One member of the cathedral’s choir loudly voiced her anger immediately after a mass:
Many church communities don’t know where they are going to get the money to pay to heat their churches next winter or to make urgently needed repairs to their church roofs.
The bishop ordered up a palatial living room, and his apartment alone cost $3.9 million, according to Jochen Riebel, the spokesman for the body administering church property in Limburg. Riebel said the bishop lied last summer when confronted over the cost, estimating the renovation at just $13.5 million.
Citing Riebel, the German news agency DPA itemized the work: $474,000 for carpentry and cupboards, $610,000 for art, $135,000 for windows for a private chapel, $34,000 for a conference table, $20,000 for a bathtub.
“For heaven’s sake!” the headline atop the nation’s largest-selling tabloid, Bild, screamed on Friday. Over a graphic that showed the bishop’s living quarters and offices, it asked:
Why does the bishop need a €783,000 garden?
By Friday, calls for the resignation of the Bishop multiplying.
The church exists to serve the weak, the sick and the poor, said Stefan Vesper, the leader of the country’s biggest organization of Catholics and among those calling for resignation. The bishop’s behavior “is not the Catholic Church,” he said.
In September, as thousands of Catholics signed petitions for and against him, the bishop, whose diocese of 682,000 believers includes rural Rhineland but also Frankfurt, the banking metropolis, begged forgiveness from all whom he might have “hurt and disappointed.”
After a visit from a Vatican envoy, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, who was sent to investigate the growing furore, the bishop agreed to have the German church investigate his spending, which he has insisted incorporated ten separate building projects and was mandated by preservation laws.
On Friday, the bishop scrapped a planned trip to Israel with a church choir, but remained silent, behind the walls of the controversial residence.
Said Joachim Heidersdorf, chief reporter for Nassauische Neue Presse, a newspaper in Limburg, a picturesque small town whose cathedral dates from more than 800 years ago:
He will have to step down; there is no alternative.
Apart from his lavish spending, the bishop also stands accused of making false statements under oath. A senior state prosecutor, Nana Frombach, formally charged on Thursday that he twice made false statements during his legal action against the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which in 2012 reported that he flew first class on a visit to the poor in India.
If found guilty, the prelate could face a fine. Much worse than his spending, in the eyes of Claudia Keller, writing on Friday for the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, is the formal charge that he lied and that:
Till today, he is sticking hard by that lie. That is not just embarrassing and a violation of the Eighth Commandment. It is the complete opposite of the life that Pope Francis imagines for his bishops.
By late Friday, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, who was appointed to Limburg by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a German, was clearly embarrassing even the cautious leaders of the roughly 24 million registered Catholics in Germany.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who said he was befuddled by the multimillions spent by the prelate when the figures emerged this week.
Tebartz-van Elst, who was ordained in 1985 and studied in France and at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in the late 1980s, was Germany’s youngest bishop when he was installed in January 2008.
Commenting on the scandal, Felix Steiner of Deutsche Welle wrote:
‘Those to whom God gives an office, he also gives sense’ – it’s an old saying in German among the faithful. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is apparently an exception to that sentiment. The bishop of Limburg has become a burden on the Catholic Church. But thus far, he seems unwilling to vacate an office that he has so massively damaged.
Tebartz has only himself to blame for the problems now making it impossible for him to exercise his office. No one forced him to make a declaration under oath about his trip to India that video evidence then proved to be a clear lie. And why is a bishop’s official administration office unable to provide a transparent accounting of its budget on a construction project within four weeks?
Thirty-one million euros ($42 million) is a lot of money and does not cohere with the ideal of a poor church that the new Pope Francis has so vehemently preached about. But other bishops in Germany have built similarly expensive residences in the past without causing a comparable outcry. As any politician knows, it’s often not the problem itself that prevents you from staying in office, but, instead, how you deal with it.
In any case, the question is: Was the bishop really the only one who knew about the construction costs for the Limburg project? That’s questionable. Ideally, some of those responsible for managing the church’s accounts who now describe Tebartz as “ill” in newspaper interviews would have shown the courage to ask critical questions during committee meetings in recent years.
The case in Limburg reveals the weakness of the centralized structure of the Catholic Church. Although Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is damaging the reputation of the entire Catholic Church in Germany, the problem cannot be solved in this country alone.
Only the pope can relieve a bishop of duty. Now, Germans, known for their frequent criticism of the papacy and of Vatican decisions, are looking eagerly to Francis. ‘Roma locuta, causa finita – Rome has spoken, the matter is closed’ – is an old principle of the Catholic Church. Let’s hope that word comes soon.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn & Angela K.