LIMBURG, Germany (Reuters) - A German Catholic bishop faced pressure to resign on Wednesday after it emerged that his new residence would cost 31 million euros (26.3 million pounds), over six times the original estimate.
Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, bishop of Limburg, was investigated by a Vatican envoy last month after protests in his diocese against lavish spending at odds with Pope Francis’s shift of the Church’s focus towards simplicity and poverty.
The soaring cost of the stately residence next to Limburg’s hilltop cathedral was made public by the diocese on Monday and was immediately criticised by churchgoers and officials.
“Such prestige projects simply don’t fit with Catholicism,” said local Catholic Raimund Champert.
“The Church, like the Pope, has a responsibility to be humble and lead by example. We are not in the Middle Ages anymore.”
Christoph Hefter, a lay member of the diocesan council, said: “The cost is shocking, it is beyond belief.”
Pope Francis, whose simple style contrasts with the more baroque tastes of his predecessor Benedict, whom he replaced in March, said last week he wanted the Church to serve the poor and strip itself of ”vanity, arrogance and pride.
Tebartz-van Elst’s finances will be audited by a commission appointed by Germany’s bishops conference. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch has indicated a final report could be ready in about two months.
Rev. Reinhold Kalteier, head of the Limburg priests’ council, said “it is up to the bishops’ conference and Rome now” to get Tebartz-van Elst to step down.
Diocese spokesman Martin Wind said the 53-year-old bishop had appealed for trust and patience. “We will have to wait to see how the audit turns out to see where responsibilities lie, and who is to blame or not to blame,” he added.
Last month’s visit by Vatican monitor Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo marked a new willingness in Rome to focus on the leadership styles of bishops, whom the pope wants to be less aloof and closer to their congregations.
After Lajolo, a former Vatican nuncio (ambassador) in Berlin, spent a week interviewing Tebartz-van Elst, his staff and his clerical and lay critics, the bishop said: “I am very sorry for any carelessness or misjudgement on my part.”
During the more conservative reign of Pope Benedict, Tebartz-van Elst was tipped as a candidate to replace the soon-to-retire Cardinal Joachim Meisner - a close ally of the German-born pontiff - as head of the country’s largest and richest diocese, Cologne.
That speculation cooled after Pope Francis was elected in March and ended as the extent of his spending emerged.
Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Robin Pomeroy