A prince among the poor

Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church, especially the clergy, to embrace Christian poverty. Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger of Quebec, the 'Prince of the Poor', set the standard many years ago.

We could talk about the Catholic German bishop who spent $46 million on a group of buildings that included his residence. The money included 15,000 euros on a bathtub. And we could talk about the Catholic archbishop of Atlanta who spent $2.2 million to construct a home for. . . himself. We will talk a bit about them, and then, instead of bemoaning these things, we’ll talk about this problem from a different angle.
 
There are always good reasons that can be used to justify expenses such as these. In the German situation, some of the buildings were on a national register of historic places and needed renovations. And the Atlanta archbishop refers to the facts that he was going to live in only 700 square feet of the 6,000 square foot home, with the rest used for meetings and entertainment; that  he had given up his residence, located near his cathedral, so that the cathedral’s rector and six priests could live there; and the land had been donated. 
 
 
The New York Times had a couple of articles and an editorial about the Atlanta affair. One of the articles, in the April 1 edition, discussed other Catholic bishops moving out of their residences. In any such story, the example of a bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, ought to be included. Here’s the report from the diocese’s webpage: 
 
     Kenneth Edward Untener (1937-2004) bishop, (1980-2004)), was born in Detroit on August 3, 1937 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1963 for the Archdiocese of Detroit. He served as rector of St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth [Michigan] from 1977 until he was ordained as the fourth bishop of Saginaw in November 1980. Described as a “Hungarian Gypsy” by his predecessor, Bishop Untener made headlines when he sold the bishop’s residence shortly after coming to the diocese and moved 69 times from parish rectory to parish rectory, living as a roommate with his diocesan priests and somewhat from the trunk of his car.
 
As I recall, Bishop Untener had his personal belongings in a duffel bag.
 
Although some articles about the Atlanta affair state that the 6,000 square foot mansion was located in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, there didn’t seem to be anyone questioning why a Catholic archbishop would agree to live on 1.8 acres in a wealthy neighborhood (unless it happened to be next to his cathedral) or to live by himself (after Pope Francis had chosen to live in a building with many residents). In the archbishop’s letter, in the March 31 issue of the Catholic archdiocesan newspaper in which he apologized and announced his decision to sell the home and property, he mentioned the concerns expressed to him by local families struggling to make ends meet. More than an expression of concern is needed. Where is the solidarity with the bishops and priests imprisoned in China? Or the Christians whose elderly priest was recently killed by a sniper in Syria? Where is the expression, the physical expression, of solidarity with the laity persecuted in the Middle East? See generally, John L. Allen, Jr., The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (2013); Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (2000).  
 
Let’s lift our eyes up to another model, a different lifestyle. I was reminded recently of the deceased archbishop of Montreal when I had occasion to research one of the archdiocese’s chancellors from 1960 to 1972, Monsignor Pierre Lafortune (d. 1984). Lafortune had served under Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger (1904-1991). I think the world, including the German bishop and the Atlanta archbishop, has long forgotten Cardinal Léger and that he had retired from his position as archbishop at the age of 63 to become a missionary in Africa to persons with leprosy.   
 
 
Léger’s father ran a general store in a small town in the Province of Quebec. (Léger’s brother, Jules, eventually became a Governor General of Canada, that is, the Queen’s representative to Canada.) Paul-Émile was too ill to continue his studies for nearly four years when he was 16 to 20 years of age. Nonetheless, he worked at jobs with mechanics, railwaymen, and butchers. After regaining his health, he sought to become a Jesuit (the same religious order as Pope Francis) but was rejected by them as being too emotional. Nonetheless he was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1929. After his ordination, he joined the Society of Saint-Sulpice (“the Sulpicians”) whose primary mission is running seminaries which train candidates for the Catholic priesthood. He learned canon law and taught it in Paris.
 
He then was happily assigned to become a missionary to Japan where he was stationed from 1933 until World War II commenced when he relocated to Montreal, staying there until 1947 at which time he was appointed a rector of a seminary in Rome. He met Pope Pius XII through his work with the Gold Cross, a charity Léger had founded that collected money in Canada and disbursed it to the post-war Roman population. Léger was consecrated archbishop of Montreal in 1950.  He served as chair of the Canadian Catholic Conference (1951-53) and was made a cardinal in 1953, the first archbishop of Montreal to be so named.
 
Léger did a great deal, including constructing buildings, in Montreal for the poor, adolescents, and the chronically ill. During Vatican II (1962-65) he consulted with the laity of his archdiocese. Thirty of his speeches at the ecumenical council were published. In the course of the Council, he spent a few weeks after Christmas 1963 in Africa and, desiring to help the people with leprosy, he created Fame Pereo (“I Am Starving to Death”), a charity to help ten leprosaria. He even asked Pope Paul VI for permission to resign so he could go to their aid and it was refused. But on November 9, 1967, he did resign. He left Montreal on December 11, at age 63, excited to be a missionary.
 
 
The author of a two-volume biography of Léger splits the volumes between his time before and after Africa: Micheline Lachance, Paul-Émile Léger: La Prince de l’Église (1988) (“Prince of the Church”); Paul-Émile Léger: Le dernier voyage (2000) (“The Last Journey”).
 
A Canadian journalist found Cardinal Léger in Africa living in a trailer. The missionary answered the journalist’s question “why?” by saying:
 
It will be the great scandal of the history of our century that 600 million people are eating well and living luxuriously and three billion people starve, and every year millions of children are dying of hunger. I am too old to change all that. The only thing I can do which makes sense is to be present. I must simply be in the midst of them. So, just tell people in Canada that you met an old priest. I am a priest who is happy to be old and still a priest and among those who suffer. I am happy to be here and to take them into my heart. 
 
He served in Cameroon for eight years while working, as cardinals do, in two part-time positions in the Vatican (Evangelization of Peoples, and Migrants and Tourism). He returned to Montreal in 1976 and served in parishes there going again to Africa in 1979. Then he left to travel the world in search of people he could help. From 1980 to 1981 he visited suffering people in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. He helped establish a hospital for persons with leprosy in India in 1982, and he founded a hospital in Haiti in 1985.
 
His numerous charitable foundations included:
 
the Gold Cross;
the Foyer of Charity (1951); 
the Hôpital Saint-Charles-Borromée for the chronically ill (1956); 
Fame Pereo
the Cardinal Léger and his Endeavours (1969);
the Centre de Rééducation des Handicapés de Yaoundé [Cameroon] (1972);
the Jules and Paul-Émile Léger Foundation (1981) (to which he bequeathed all his property);
the Partners of the Cardinal (1983); 
the Partners of the World (1986); and 
Elderaid (1986).
 
Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger understood what St. Lawrence (c. 225-258) understood when Lawrence was commanded by Roman Emperor Valerian to bring the treasures of the Church to him. St. Lawrence, a  deacon responsible for the distribution of alms to the poor, brought to Valerian the poor of Rome, and declared: “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.” 
 
Cardinals are called “Princes of the Church.” One biographer called Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger “a prince among the poor.” He died in 1991 at age 87. 
 
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, was in an Argentine seminary in 1967 when Cardinal Léger resigned as archbishop and became a missionary to persons with leprosy. He was age 31 and he would have known of the event because it made international news in the secular and religious press. Bergoglio was made a bishop at age 55 in 1992, the year after the Cardinal’s obituaries appeared in the newspapers.     
 
Spero writer James Thunder is an attorney and syndicated columnist. Thunder and his wife Ann have written a forthcoming work on the relations between priests and the laity on the model of Father Karol Wojtyla, Pope St. John Paul the Great. It will appear in multiple languages. 
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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