Friday, October 25, 2013

His Holiness, A Saint, and Being Frank

Closing time, last call!
Let us imagine the year is 2008. I'm off to college, fresh out of high school, and someone in my class sparks the concept of religion. Round and round go the vagaries of discussing such a thing in the modern public sphere. Someone who knew more than most about such things spins the topic more seriously than most and shoves it in my direction.

"Hey Zac, what would be a more important quality in a priest? Celibacy or Poverty?"

I have to admit I didn't know what he was talking about. I knew then that some particular religions and denominations required celibate men for the priesthood - everyone knew that. What I didn't know was that some particular religions and denominations require vows of poverty, as well, which isn't to say that all priests must be horribly poor, but simply, as I understand it, that they are not inappropriately rich.

I thought about it for a moment and countered that the most important quality for a priest would be a love of his work. Obviously that wasn't an option, and the person in question was trying to get me to actually think about something, so after a moment more I said, definitively, that it was poverty.

I've been like a dog with a bone when it comes to poverty ever since. Doctrinal poverty speaks to me. The lifestyles of the various monastics and even some of your more dedicated secular priests and bishops baffle me.

But, it occurs to me, that it is required to some extent. When a wealthy man is called to the priesthood, what then? It's up to him, of course, but what could be more noble than to set aside his wealth, either to his family or to his eventual parish? After all, he can't take it with him.

And consider this: a priest's stipend is paid by the church. This stipend goes over and beyond the housing provided by virtue of his rectory. One assumes, then, that it is intended for a number of things: keeping up the rectory, maintaining a stocked kitchen, and so on. The collection, of course, once the episcopal share comes off the top, is chiefly used for charitable works and maintaining the physical parish itself. Hosts and Wine have to come from somewhere, after all, and it would be horrible of the roof was leaking in the sanctuary.

But with the stipend, how do we decide what is necessary? That's the rub, really, because what is "necessary" in one location is not in another, and what is necessary in one time is not necessary in another. It is difficult (albeit not impossible) to conceive of a parish priest relying entirely on public transportation. Obviously, if the network is good and the reliance wouldn't prevent him from dispensing his priestly duties in an expedient fashion (priests are emergency service workers, don't forget), then he should consider it. If not, what type of car should he drive? A '95 Corolla would get him around as well as a '14 Lincoln Continental. How about a computer? My parish produces its materials such as the weekly bulletins, signs, and other such documents in-house. The diocese has published an email address to contact the pastor. Is the computer necessary for them? Is the computer necessary in Rwanda? Madrid? Tokyo? Priests have cellphones now, and in areas where cellular service is available I am inclined to think they should. But on what price plan? What features does he really need? What if a rudimentary phone isn't available?

It's a judgement call, really. One of those things where the priest needs to use his own conscience, as we all must from time to time. It's true of the parish, too. Where one parish will be hard-pressed to provide pews more elegant than cinder blocks and boards, for example, in another, having custom-printed, serialized contribution envelopes is a nothing, and I know something about that, since I used to have a deck of them in my top desk drawer.

So, where do Popes and Saints come in? Well, in a word, Francis. To my non-catholic readers, Saint Francis of Assisi was one of your Archetypal Monks. When you think of a Friar you're thinking Franciscan, and poverty was kind of a Big Deal in their practice. Pope Francis chose the name for that reason, essentially declaring himself the first pope of the poor.

So far, he's done nothing but reinforce that visual. Most recently, he booted a German Bishop for spending $40 Million on renovations to his residence. I hear tell of a $15,000 bathtub.

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