Affluent Laity Want Bishop to Lead a Simple Life

By William Bole
National Catholic Reporter
Downloaded August 14, 2003

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has descended upon the people of Boston in the style of St. Francis of Assisi, who strode down from the hills of Umbria to spread his message of jubilation and harmony in demoralizing times. Clad in a plain brown robe, the bishop has already given a scandal-weary faithful cause for consolation.

And, if there is a tangible reason for this spiritual lift, besides the hope of settling hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits, it is his vow to restore simplicity to the office of Boston's archbishop.

At a July 1 news conference, O'Malley said matter-of-factly that as a Franciscan friar (who belongs to the ascetic Capuchin order), he would prefer the "simplest quarters." Those words were widely greeted as grounds for hope, a sign of humility judged lacking in his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

Since then, the idea of Boston's archbishop moving into modest quarters, rather than the ample suburban residence that awaits him, has assumed an air of expectation verging on demand. We now hear appeals for O"Malley to go find himself a humble abode and sell off the cardinal&'s manse in suburban Brighton, Mass., as one way of generating funds to settle the lawsuits. (At this writing, the archbishop is staying in temporary quarters undisclosed by the archdiocese.)

Not unexpectedly, these calls are coming mostly from reform-minded Catholics, who tend to dwell in wealthier enclaves of the Boston area. Many are allied with the lay organization Voice of the Faithful, which was founded in a parish in Wellesley, where the average home price is barely south of $1 million, and is headquartered in Newton, which is nearly as exclusive. I hear heavy pro-simple-quarters sentiment in my town, Andover, a Voice of the Faithful stronghold where home prices hover around a half-million dollars on average.

Here in eastern Massachusetts, we are one of the nation's most affluent Catholic flocks, and we aspire to grander and more highly appraised dwellings. We trade up. We add on: family rooms with cathedral ceilings and skylights, master bedroom suites with walk-in closets and sitting rooms, gourmet kitchens that seem roughly the size of airport terminals. We choose marble for our bathroom vanities and granite for our kitchen countertops, as we bemoan the "marble and mahogany appointments" spied in one part of the cardinal"s residence by sources for The Boston Globe.

Is there no irony in this picture? Is there no reason to reflect as we, the well domiciled, call on the Capuchin to live up to our presumed standards of simplicity?

It should be scarcely surprising that few if any such entreaties are emanating from poorer parishes. By definition, voluntary poverty is not an option for the involuntarily poor, whose lives are usually marked by a bleak supply of choices. Besides, opulence in the church has more often been a source of hope for the dispossessed than a cause of handwringing. Magnificent cathedrals and splendid, flowing vestments have symbolized aspirations both earthly and heavenly.

All that said, a move by O'Malley into the "simplest quarters" would be of human significance and applauded by many across our thickening economic boundaries. The question is why? How do we explain this sudden longing for simplicity in the episcopate?

Perhaps the Franciscan, who chose to live in a small bungalow as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., embodies hopes we might have for less cluttered, more contemplative lives. Perhaps St. Francis wasn"t merely playing the fool when he spoke of his undying attraction to a gorgeous woman whose name was Poverty.

In a more urgent sense, the faithful are probably betting that a shepherd who is simple is a shepherd who will be trustworthy and transparent. "The simple person " has no secrets, and he acts without guile, ulterior motives, agendas, or plans," writes the contemporary French philosopher Andr" Comte-Sponville.

Yet, there is the rub: If O'Malley's residential choice is calculated to please a constituency, it would mean that he is not a genuinely simple person. Simplicity is the opposite of calculation. It is, as G.K. Chesterton said in sizing up St. Francis, a freedom bordering on frivolity.

So I will pray that O'Malley is indifferent to these pleas issuing from his well-fed flock, and I will pray that he is frivolous.

William Bole is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington and a journalist who lives in Massachusetts.


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