Pope would have liked former Spokane bishop

Contributing WriterApril 19, 2014 

When I read that Pope Francis is determined to set the example on helping impoverished people, I think of a similarly inclined former Catholic bishop from Spokane.

Francis has watered down the opulent lifestyle provided for popes and settled instead for a humble apartment. And yes, there’s a deliberate message in that.

Similarly, Wikipedia quotes the late Bishop Bernard Topel as saying, “I have come to the realization that the most important thing I can do in the church — and that applies to Christians in general — is to live simply in order to give money to the poor.”

And boy did he give money to the poor, including his own.

I interviewed Topel on two occasions, including one visit to his humble ice box of a house. The thermostat was at 50 degrees.

Topel, bishop from 1955 to 1978, had some kind of epiphany about setting examples for his flock by depriving himself of simple comforts.

He sold his fancy bishop’s ring and his extravagant golden staff, giving the money to the poor. Then he sold the official bishop’s mansion, also using that money to help the deprived. He lived on meager amounts of money himself, giving up part of his Social Security checks to the hungry.

He grew his own vegetables and obtained free fish heads from grocery stores for homemade soup.

He complained that the women of his church kept undercutting what he was trying to do. When he declined their food face to face, they left it in his car. He was touched that they worried about him, but he was frustrated. He was trying to set an example.

The day I visited, I asked him about the new plush carpet in the bedroom of his little house.

He said when he was out of town, some of the priests had his entire house carpeted as a surprise.

Topel had all the carpeting removed, except that in his bedroom. But he did capitulate just a little. “I am an old man,” he said, “and I do enjoy stepping out of bed in the morning onto a warm carpet rather than a cold floor.”

But he didn’t give up on setting examples. For instance, one December day, he lived the scriptures in a new, literal way, evoking the words “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. … I was in prison and you came to visit.”

He came to visit the jail here in Lewiston, Idaho. He visited two young prisoners. Then he paid their bail.

The two youngsters had never heard of Topel. When they were told that he, a stranger, had freed them, they burst into tears.

Unfortunately, Topel was flawed as an administrator. He was told that one of his priests was molesting boys. He ordered the priest to stop, and then — naively, stupidly — sent the offender to another parish where he continued the abuse.

Churches frequently blundered like that back then, determined to wash their own dirty linen in private. Today, the courts rightly see crime as their job, not leaving it to wantonly careless pastors.

Pope Francis appears to be less gullible than that.

Topel was more naive than this new pope in another way. He thought those priests who carpeted his house were simply being kind.

Actually, I suspect some of them may have been aghast that he was abandoning extravagant privileges of a bishop that they hoped one day to enjoy. They thought Topel was creating a bad precedent.

Similarly, there is little doubt that some of today’s most regal cardinals are apprehensive that Francis is diluting the grandeur and the trappings they hope one day to wallow in when they become pope.

Bill Hall can be contacted at wilberth@cableone.net or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service