Bishop Edward O’Rourke was bishop of Peoria through the seventies and eighties. I became aware of him shortly after my return to the Church in 1979. He was notable because he sold the sumptuous bishop’s mansion, bought a one bedroom house near the cathedral, and deposited the remaining money in a fund for retired priests. He planted a garden on the small plot, drove an old car, and in other ways eschewed the luxury most bishops take for granted.
I mention him because until the other day I was unaware of any other bishop having done such a thing, let alone someone who was ordinary of such a large diocese as Buenos Aires. I find this remarkable, this voluntary simplicity and solidarity with the poor.
Because like it or not -and I really do not like it – the hierarchy with few exceptions lives a life that is bourgeois if not aristocratic. They are called “princes of the Church” and most of them live up to the title. In this they are not imitators of Christ but of the rich and the ruling classes.
And now this man from a far country, this man who chose the name of the little poor man of Assisi, appears ready to shake up the culture of clericalism. It may prove hard to replicate his life of simplicity, but he seems ready to try: instead of calling for a Vatican driver, he took a cab to the conclave. Immediately after the election he picked up his own baggage and paid the fare. His first appearances were in a simple white cassock. I do not expect him to favor the furs and silks and fancy shoes of his predecessor.
Please note that I am not calling for liturgical asceticism; the temple is the place where human artifice is consecrated to God, where all that is beautiful and splendid should shine. Silk and brocade and gold and jewels are utterly fit in worship. But in private life, those who are the successors to the apostles should imitate their lives, not the lives of the affluent.
There is much talk of a “new evangelization”. Let’s hope that it begins with the evangelization of the clergy, with the conversion to voluntary simplicity and renunciation of the culture of clerical privilege and soft living.
It appears that Pope Francis is ready to set an example.