Occasionally in evangelical or broader Protestant life, we hear of a pastor or bishop who has the means to maintain a luxurious lifestyle — and chooses to live that way. Often, he (or she) also has a successful television presence.
When a news story was posted a few days ago about Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s construction of a $2.2 million mansion for himself in an upscale area of the city, it certainly didn’t seem to fit with a body of clergy well known for taking vows of poverty.
Apparently, reaction to the news about Archbishop Gregory was electric — and negative. It provoked an angry outcry from Atlanta-area Catholics.
The predictable reaction of the faithful subsequently prompted the 66-year-old archbishop to apologize for his lapse in judgment. He issued a statement published in The Georgia Bulletin, a Catholic newspaper, to “apologize sincerely and from my heart.
“I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia,” he said. “I failed to consider the impact on families throughout the archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.”
The construction of the 6,000-square-foot house in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta was funded by money left by Joseph Mitchell, whose aunt, Margaret Mitchell, was the author of “Gone With the Wind.” The nephew, who died in 2011, left $15 million and his home to his local parish and the archdiocese, asking that it be used for charity.
Gregory acknowledged that he had received more than a few phone calls, letters and emails rebuking him for his decision. He quoted one in his apology: “We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for,” one anonymous complainer wrote.
News accounts indicate the archbishop’s apology came as he appeals on the archdiocese website for support of the church’s annual appeal beneath the headline “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As of this writing, Gregory is considering putting the new house on the market to further defuse parishioners’ concerns, but he hasn’t decided for sure.
The day after Gregory’s apology, Pope Francis declined to comment on Gregory and his house. A few days earlier, the pope met with German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst behind closed doors at the Vatican. The German, referred to as “Bishop Bling” in the media, was suspended from his position after spending $42 million in church funds to renovate his residence.
Francis drew positive media attention after his election as pope by choosing to forego an ornate papal apartment at the Vatican and instead live in a Santa Marta residence behind St. Peter’s. He chose as his official vehicle a Ford Focus.
Archbishop Gregory would be wise to place the Buckhead house on the market without waffling further on the matter. It could potentially help him restore his integrity and credibility among his parishioners. Otherwise, his apology will be a bit hollow.
His experience should serve as a timely lesson for all faith leaders, and faithful parishioners, seeking to minister in the name of — and in the way of — Christ himself.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.