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Papal paradox: Vatican’s wealth and Jesuit humility

To all appearances, the Catholic Church's new Pope Francis is a humble man with simple tastes. Which begs the question, how will he manage the Vatican's considerable wealth?


, reporting from the Vatican City

He carries his own luggage, clatters along Rome's cobbled streets in an ordinary Volkswagen, and whips out his wallet to settle hotel bills.

So it's perhaps natural to wonder how Pope Francis, an ecclesiastical everyman known for his self-effacement and lifelong aversion to opulence of any kind, will react when he relieves himself for the first time and discovers the Vatican's Golden Toilet Flush?

It was a discovery which, according to one account, horrified Pope John Paul I, who wrote: "...this morning, I flushed my toilet with a solid gold lever edged with diamonds and at this very moment, bishops and cardinals are using a bathroom on the second floor of the Papal palace with trappings, I am told, (that) would draw more than fifty million dollars at auction."

Trillion-dollar nest egg

Few who followed this week's papal conclave and the glittery "Habemus Papam" ceremony that followed the belching white smoke, could fail to note the contrast between the resplendence of the ecclesiastical show - and the economic hardship on display elsewhere in Italy and across much of Europe.

When all its global properties - stretching from St. Peter's Basilica to Brazil to Old Bond Street - are added up, the Vatican's nest egg, experts say, amounts to trillions of dollars.

The Rev. Dan Vojir, a former radio show talk host who has been writing and blogging on religion and politics for the better part of a decade, says one can argue that the Vatican controls an economy even larger than that of the United States.

While that may be disputable, what's clear is that the true value of the Vatican's vast financial empire - and the opulence that goes with it - remains a tightly guarded secret.

Ascetic role model

Getting the scandal-tainted Vatican Bank to come clean on its assets and business practices will be one among many of the daunting challenges facing the new pontiff.

But already, we can surmise that a Pope whose choice of name, Francis, was inspired by the Catholic Church's most ascetic saint - a man whose devotion to a life of privation and poverty is seen by many as second only to that of Jesus Christ himself - will take a "zero tolerance" approach to clerical excess. Saint Francis of Assisi was an equal-opportunity preacher of the faith.

He made little distinction between man and beast, praying to birds and, in one notable instance of missionary zeal, imploring a wolf to refrain from attacking members of his flock (in exchange for a promise from said flock to keep said wolf well fed.)

'May God forgive you'

When he wasn't busy inventing the Christmas nativity scene, Francis of Assisi spread a basic message: that the world is good but in need of redemption due to man's primordial sin.

Some 800 years later, Pope Francis delivered a similar message to his cardinals at a maiden Mass at the Sistine Chapel on Thursday evening.

The night before, a self-deprecating Francis had responded to a celebratory toast from these same cardinals, congratulating him on his election, by asking God "to forgive you for what you have done" (ie, electing him as Pope).

But in his homily, Francis adopted a more earnest tone, reminding the cardinals that life is a journey, one in which mankind must persevere.

Weaving together various readings from the Book of Isaiah, the psalms and The Gospel of Matthew, he spoke of the need to bear the keep moving keep building and professing the faith.

And then it was off to break the seal on his new Papal the Volkswagen.

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