BERLIN — Pope Francis, who has made humility and modesty his hallmarks, sent a swift and clear message to Roman Catholics around the world Wednesday, suspending a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence, and forcing the chief administrator of the bishop's diocese into early retirement.
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, was reported to have allowed costs of renovating his residence and other church buildings to run to more than $41 million. The project drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries like a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room — as well as a cross to be suspended from the ceiling of a personal chapel that necessitated the reopening of a renovated roof.
The pope acted two days after receiving the bishop in Rome, where he was summoned to explain himself. The Vatican issued a statement saying that the pope had been "comprehensively and objectively" informed and that Tebartz-van Elst "currently cannot exercise his office."
It added that the Holy See considered it "advisable" for the bishop to spend an unspecified time away from Limburg. His duties will be assumed by a deacon who was already scheduled to become the diocese's chief administrator at the end of the year.
The pope's decision to suspend Tebartz-van Elst lifted spirits among Germany's Catholics and reinforced indications that he will enforce his values throughout the church hierarchy. The pope has chosen to live in a spartan guesthouse in the Vatican, rather than the opulent apartments his predecessors used, and he has said that bishops should not live "like princes."
"His decision signals that the pope deems pastoral life and moral examples important, not an accessory," said Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian and director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies.
The pope is signaling that living the right kind of humble life "is more important than managing the Curia in a more efficient way," he said, referring to the Vatican bureaucracy.
Commentators noted that Francis' immediate predecessor, the German-born Benedict XVI, removed several bishops for various reasons, including financial scandals. But Pope John Paul II did not take any public action when an American bishop, William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., drew wide criticism for a luxurious residential suite he had built for himself in 2002, displacing six nuns from a convent.
The Limburg scandal first reached the Vatican in August, and a cardinal, Giovanni Lajolo, was dispatched to look into it. As a result, the German Bishops Conference appointed a commission to investigate the spending affair, amid conflicting reports over the chain of responsibility for approving the expense of the project and about how much of the blame rested with the bishop.
German church experts said the bishop would probably never return to his post, even though the Vatican presented his suspension as temporary.
The bishop has said in his defense that the reported spending on remodeling in Limburg covered 10 individual projects, some of them involving buildings governed by landmark preservation laws that drove up costs, and that his private quarters were a relatively small part of the work.