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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Pope Francis: Is the rich ‘Vatican’ helping the poor ‘Lazaruses’ globally?

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Taking to social media today, Pope Francis drew a wonderful but questionable inference to the role of a rich man and the destiny of a poor man. He focused on the parable in the Holy Bible from the Gospel of Saint Luke Chapter 16 Verse 19-31.

The story in the parable is about a rich man, to whom no name is attributed, and a poor man named Lazarus:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire. But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

Keeping a focus on the parable of the Gospel of Luke, the Pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis in his Twitter message today said “The rich man does not even have a name; instead, the poor man has a name, Lazarus, which means “God helps”. Despite his marginalised condition, his dignity is intact because he lives in a relationship with God, the unshakeable hope of his life.”

He further expressed, “The #Eucharist invites us to conversion: from indifference to compassion, from waste to sharing, from individualism to fraternity, because there is no true Eucharistic worship without compassion for the many “Lazaruses” who walk beside us even today.”

“Let us return to the taste of bread, because while injustice and discrimination against the poor continue in the world, Jesus gives us the Bread of Sharing and sends us out daily as apostles of fraternity, justice and peace,” he further elucidated.

Pope Francis invites Catholics all over the world to show compassion to the poor around the world, which he terms as the ‘Lazaruses’.

The real conundrum to me in the views expressed by Pope Francis is whether the wealth raised by the Vatican through donations from millions of Catholics around the world is used judiciously to help ‘Lazaruses’ or administer the vast assets and operations of the Catholic Church globally.

In 2019, the Vatican economy minister, Father Juan Antonio Guerrero, said the Vatican’s total net assets were about 4 billion euros.

The 12-page consolidated financial statement was released for the Holy See, the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church. The statement, includes data on about 70 departments that oversee the governing of 1.3 billion-member worldwide Church, its media operations and its embassies abroad.

The statement however, did not include the Vatican bank and the Vatican museums, which are both big money-makers.

The Holy See generates revenue from Peter’s Pence, the 8th-century term for donations that are received from Catholics all over the world. From individuals to dioceses, the Holy See collects the donations through a special department. The Holy See also gains revenue from interest and investments of its reserves.

Traditionally, the Holy See invests mainly in Italian industries, spreading its portfolio between stocks and bonds, and limiting its stake in companies to less than 6 percent. It has invested conservatively, choosing to buy and hold proven companies in strong industries; because of this, investments in the developing world are limited. More recent investments have been more international, particularly in western European currencies and bonds, with some activity in the New York Stock Exchange. The Holy See also has investments in real estate around the world, particularly in land and churches.

The Vatican City receives revenue from more traditional stately ventures like museum admissions, tours, highly sought-after stamps and coins, and the sale of publications. The Vatican doesn’t disclose how much money it collects each year from these ventures.

In February 2018, the Vatican Bank announced it was charging its former bank president and his lawyer of embezzling USD 50 million euros through fraudulent real estate and money laundering schemes.

In its 2018 annual report (released May 2019), the Vatican Bank said it was making advances in reducing money laundering and increasing financial transparency. The bank reported a profit of USD 19.8 million in 2018, down from its USD 36 million profit of 2017. The bank’s assets—valued at about $5.6 billion at the end of 2018—consisted of investments and deposits from almost 15,000 account holders. These account holders included Catholic clergy, Vatican employees, and Catholic religious orders around the world.

In July 2022, the Vatican centralized and overhauled its investment strategy imposing a policy that prohibits investments in products such as pornography and weapons and prioritizes prudent investing in industries that promote the common good. The new policy by the Secretariat for the Economy banned speculative investments, short selling and investing in highly leveraged or complex financial products or in countries vulnerable to money laundering and terrorist financing.

The new investment policy arose out of the 2019 financial scandal that rocked the Vatican. According to court documents and testimonies, the Vatican considered investing 200 million euros in an Angola oil extraction deal. A decision was made against it and the money instead went toward converting a former warehouse of luxury department store Harrod’s into a luxury residential property. At another point, the Vatican invested in a fund behind the renowned gay Pop Star Elton John’s biopic ‘Rocketman’.

Italian weekly L’Espresso published a report Oct. 2020, revealing information from three confidential Vatican documents, one of which is a report from the Pope’s anti-corruption authority, called the Office of the General Auditor, claiming to have found serious financial crimes and corruption within the Secretariat of State.

The documents, L’Espresso reported, detail the use and management of extra-budgetary funds by the Secretariat of State, “deriving in large part from the donations received by the Holy Father for charitable works and for the sustenance of the Roman Curia.”

Most of the money was drawn from Peter’s Pence, the annual collection through which Catholics are invited to support the charitable activities of the pope.

The Secretariat of State is the central governing office of the Catholic Church and the department of the Roman Curia which works most closely with the pope. It is also responsible for the governance of the Vatican City state.

Post the scandal, Pope Francis removed from the secretariat of state its ability to manage its own money and ordered the assets transferred to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See. APSA manages the Vatican’s real estate and other patrimony and is now responsible for overseeing the investment strategy for the entire Holy See.

The Vatican’s website for the collection, www.peterspence.va, describes it as a “gesture of charity, a way of supporting the activity of the Pope and the universal Church in favouring especially the poorest and Churches in difficulty. It is also an invitation to pay attention and be near to new forms of poverty and fragility.

However, it was shockingly revealed in the Wall Street Journal report in 2019 that the Catholic Church does not advertise that most of that collection from people around the world under Peter’s Pence, worth more than €50 million ($55 million) annually, goes toward plugging the hole in the Vatican’s own administrative budget, while as little as 10 percent is spent on charitable works.

There is no doubt that many are looking to Pope Francis and his reforms to provide transparency in the Catholic Church, hoping his initiatives clear up the secret operations that have surrounded the Vatican’s finances for so many decades.

However, in the debate of the rich man who does not have name and poor man Lazarus elucidated by Pope Francis in his social media messages, the moot question is whether the rich Vatican is using its collected funds for the ‘Lazaruses’ around the world.

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