Jesus Won’t Have Any Part of It

By Bob Ripley
London Free Press
October 1, 2010

There was a reason why Jesus had a wardrobe that consisted of the robe on his back. Money tends to complicate things.

I say this because it is getting hard to square the penniless peasant with the opulence of parts of the movement he birthed.

The chairperson and the director-general of the Vatican Bank known as IOR (Istituto per le Opere di Religione or Institute for Works of Religion) are under investigation for possible violations of Italian money laundering regulations. The Vatican Bank handles all the accounts of its religious orders and the thousands of other Catholic associations using the offshore status of the Holy See.

At the heart of this investigation are two transfers - one for 20 million euros (about $28 million Cdn) to JP Morgan in Frankfurt Germany and the other for three million euros (about $4 million Canadian) to the Italian Banca del Fucino. The IOR is alleged to have failed to provide enough information, thus prompting the Bank of Italy to automatically suspend the transactions.

The Vatican secretariat of state issued a communique in which it expressed its "perplexity and bewilderment" at the case. But scandal and controversy are not unknown to the Vatican Bank.

In 1982, it became enmeshed in the collapse of an Italian bank, Banco Ambrosiano, of which it was the major shareholder. The Vatican Bank's head at the time, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, was expected to be indicted in 1982 in Italy as an accessory of the bankruptcy, but ended up being protected by his diplomatic immunity as a Vatican prelate. That scandal took an even darker turn when two of Ambrosiano's executives, one of them Roberto Calvi who was dubbed "God's banker," were murdered.

To be fair, the gauche merging of religious good and worldly plenty is not unique to Catholicism. While Jesus launched a mini-church, North American evangelicals continue to construct mega churches which offer big box worship centres with quality childcare, self-improvement seminars and state-of-the-art entertainment technology. It's all about Jesus, but it's also all about market share.

There are, however, glimmers of hope that the medium and the message are coalescing once again.

For instance, the emergence of the house church - or rather re-emergence of an assembly first noted in Acts 1:13. Or the networks of Christians linked loosely by Internet sites, social media and word of mouth. They have little formal connection to institutional Christianity, but many have revived medieval liturgies including prayer labyrinths and divina or sacred reading, a process of intense meditation and prayer over a short biblical passage.

In Denver, Cool., you can attend Scum of the Earth (based on 1 Corinthians 4:11-13) whose mission is to be a church that seeks intimacy with God and honest relationships with others. Pretty simple.

There are also pockets of a passionate upsurge of Christianity in Africa where cathedrals and giant worship centres are out of the question economically and theologically.

But most encouraging is the emphasis of twentysomething Christians to recalibrate their Christianity by listening to the call of Jesus to radically reduce not just the wealth but the bureaucracy that saps the church's energy from the task of being Jesus in the world.

The doors of cathedrals and worship centres will not soon close, but it may be time to give our spiritual heads a shake and realize that the plenty amassed by organized religion may soon overshadow the good it intends.

Rev. Robert Ripley is a retired United Church minister.


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