10.16.13 9:45 AM ET
Germany’s Bishop of Bling
Not long after he was elected in March, Pope Francis promised to trim the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, setting a personal example by shunning the usual pomp and circumstance that goes with the papacy. He lives in a spartan suite a simple hostel on the Vatican grounds rather than the opulent Vatican apartments overlooking St. Peter’s square. He has opted for Fiat cars instead of the armored Mercedes “Popemobile” favored by his predecessors. He also refuses to upgrade his wardrobe, wearing black priest garb under his white vestments instead of the usual white papal pants that don’t show through the satin cloaks. He sits in wooden chairs instead of gilded thrones, and his ring is made of silver, not gold. In one of his first public speeches, he said, “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor.”
Apparently the pope’s message did not make it to Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the bishop of Limburg, Germany, who admits to spending some $42 million on opulent new digs. Now Tebartz-van Elst, who was appointed by Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI, has been summoned to Rome to answer to the pope after a German newspaper outed the sins of the big spending bishop. Tebartz-van Elst had told his parishioners, whose contributions covered the building costs, that the renovation project would come in at around $7.4 million for upgraded living quarters and a new chapel. Registered Catholics pledge a part of their taxes to the German Church so even Catholics from other dioceses paid a price for the prelate’s excesses.
Tebartz-van Elst’s new headquarters include a $3 million marble courtyard with running holy water, according to Bild, which ran an itemized tally of the bishop’s expenditures. Lush sculpted gardens, which are not accessible to the general congregation, cost more than $1 million, according to German Der Spiegel, which ran a photo spread of the bishop’s estate called “Pimping the Diocese”.
The bishop reportedly spent a cool $4 million on his own living quarters, filing them with fine furnishings including gilded door handles, a $33,000 dining table, $472,000 built-in closets and a $20,000 bathtub. He also has a sauna, wine cellar and fireplace, not to mention specially commissioned religious statues. The so-called Bishop of Bling also spent $3.6 million on a new chapel and $1.5 million on sleeping quarters for visiting clergy. When confronted with the excesses, Tebartz-van Elst told Bild, “Those who know me know I don’t need any kind of grandiose lifestyle.”
But the contractor on the project, defending himself against the bishop’s claims that he hadn’t been told the costs were rising, told the German press that the bishop had always been given an estimate for the project that was six times higher. He is also being investigated for lying about a recent pilgrimage to India to minister to the poor. He had told parishioners that he made the trip on modest means, when he actually flew first class on Lufthansa, allegedly burying the expense by calling it a donation to a local diocese once there. This from the bishop who once told the faithful “Renewal begins where the efforts toward making due with less are made. The person of faith is dirt poor and rich in mercy.”
His lack of transparency has angered the 600,000 members of the diocese, who have started projecting the words “Thou Shalt Not Steal” on the cathedral’s stone walls. Chancellor Angela Merkel even weighed in: "Of course, it is not the German government's place to give any advice, but I may express the hope that it will be a solution for the faithful, for people's confidence in their church," her spokesman Steffen Seibert said. Calls for Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation have echoed across the country. "The bishop has made it clear that any decision about his service as a bishop lies in the hands of the Holy Father,” the diocese said in a written statement.
As a consolation, Tebartz-van Elst did fly on discount provider Ryan Air when he came to Rome this week. Whether he will be relegated to a lesser posting or be defrocked for his decadence remains in the hands of the Holy See, which just appointed Pietro Parolin as its new austerity-minded secretary of state. No matter what, it seems unlikely Tebartz-van Elst will get to enjoy the fruits of his construction labor. It is far more likely that he will get to live words from a sermon he gave in August: "Whoever experiences poverty in person will discover the true greatness of God.” It could be that is exactly what frugal Pope Francis has in mind for the Bishop of Bling.