Pope Francis made some very interesting remarks in recent days to a group of seminarians and consecrated religious novices who were visiting the Vatican as part of their Year of Faith observances, and his words have produced varied reaction from priests and religious around the world. The Holy Father told the assembled seminarians and novices that they should maintain humility and ought to seriously consider not riding around in a new car, saying that a humble bicycle would be a better choice.
“And, if you like that beautiful car, think about how many children are dying of hunger, just (think of) that!” the Holy Father said, “I’m telling you, truly, it hurts me when I see a priest or a sister with a brand new car. But you can’t (do that), you can’t!” The Holy Father’s strong words even inspired one Columbian priest to sell the Mercedes-Benz his family gave him.
As can be imagined, some are drawing the conclusion that the Holy Father would, if he had his druthers, forbid all priests from owning cars and have all of them ride bicycles. While it is clear that the Holy Father is demonstrating his long-known preference that members of the clergy not live lives that may be perceived by others as opulent (a perception that he spurned as an archbishop), it is equally apparent that some of the people who appear to be somewhat critical of Pope Francis’ larger message in this regard do not seem to grasp the real significance of what the Pope is trying to tell not only priests and religious, but all of us.
One of the worst kinds of vice that any Christian can find themselves engaged in, however inadvertently, is an attachment to the things of this world and to the kingdoms of this world rather than the things of God and the Kingdom of God. In Western society, and certainly in American culture, we as a people have developed an attachment to the material world and to our things that is a gross perversion of the plan of God. It is one thing for worldly people to be taken in with worldly things, but it is quite another for God’s people to be concerned with them.
Since members of the clergy are the most visible representatives of the Church to the wider world, then it is absolutely right that Pope Francis should be concerned with clergy having the appearance of living in comparative luxury, opulence, or even in a state seen to great deal better than many of their parishioners. The clergy-bishops, priests, and deacons-are not agents of this world, but are custodians of the Church Militant (God’s “holy nation” in this world) and ambassadors and agents of a kingdom that is not of this world. A desire for worldly goods produces an attachment to this world that is wholly inconsistent with the life of any man whose life is pledged as a leader of God’s people, the subjects of that Kingdom which is not of this present world.
The Holy Father’s remarks about priests and religious who drive in brand new cars “hurting” him and his suggestion that they should consider using bicycles instead ought to be taken with a healthy dose of context. It is certain that the Pope would not be keen to apply his bicycle suggestion to, say, a circuit-riding priest who ministers in a large rural geographic area. However, there have been clergy who live in places where they didn’t need a car at all (circumstances would have allowed them to use a bike or public transit instead) and they’ve had some of the nicest rides to be found. The Holy Father is almost certainly calling attention to those instances, similarly to clergy who live in quarters that are far finer than many of their parishioners may live in.
It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with a nice house or a nice car, but if a priest becomes consumed with taking care of his big fine motorcar and the nice material goods that he has, the more to take him away from his primary concern in this world, which is the care of souls. The issue seems to be less whether a priest should have a car or a bicycle, and more “do I need that brand new car, or that fancy gadget, or this or that thing. Can I get by with something less in order that I might live more simply?”
This attitude that the Holy Father seems to be attempting to foster is one of detachment from the things of this world, and it isn’t just something that can be applied to priests and religious, either. As a Aspirant in formation to the permanent deaconate, I have had to give up many things that I love and enjoy for the sake of my own spiritual betterment and the advancement of my formation as well as the good of the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to be clergy, or religious, or aspiring to be one or the other to ask yourself: “Do I really need that, or could the cost of that thing that I want better be put elsewhere, especially to the work of the Church or the care of the poor, marginalized, or neglected in society?”
If we spent much of our time pursuing our needs rather than our wants and then giving what is left of our blessed abundance to those who need it in return, the world would again likely look at us and say “see how these Christians love one another!” If that kind of posture is good for Christians as a whole, and is the example that we all need to aspire to, then it is very easy to understand why Pope Francis seems to be saying that the clergy ought to be the ones to lead and live by that example.