Watch, and Pray

Religion is a lucrative business. There is likely a deep, evolutionary urge for fair play nestled somewhere in primate DNA. Monkeys and apes seem concerned about it, and certainly nothing gets people more upset than a cheater who does prosper (unless he, less often she, is the protagonist of some gangster movie). Most of us work pretty hard to make a living, often doing tasks that push us beyond our comfort range in order to ensure some kind of success. The same is true of clergy. Yes, stories of lazy or lackadaisical ministers abound, but many work long hours under often stressful conditions. Most are not paid very well. Their eyes, according to unwritten writ, are turned toward a larger prize. In an economy that has become a nearly universal capitalism, everything has a price. People want to feel that they are pleasing God but there are oh so many rules and regulations! The Hebrew Bible alone has 613, and then add the Christian Scriptures and two millennia of ecclesiological dogmatism and you’ve got one hefty bill. We don’t mind paying a bit of that for a religious specialist to take care of the details while we get on with the real business of life.

Now add a little math. How many people does it take to add up to a small fortune? Already by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church, really the only show in town across Europe, had amassed a real treasury. Although individually the clergy could claim to own nothing, collectively they were flush. Even today the wealth (and therefore power) of the Vatican is nearly beyond comprehension. A colleague recently pointed me to a story I had missed back in April. This involved the computer age and lucre in an unexpected place. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I was photographed sitting at a high-gloss table, wearing a Breguet watch valued at $30,000. There was an outcry. The Russian Church, long under the pressure of a communist state, could hardly be described as opulent. Well, liturgical vestments and accouterments are expected to be costly, but personal items such as watches, are expected to be modest. Thirty-thousand dollars is a lot of money to be reminded of when to show up for mass.

In response, some church leaders turned to technology for a solution. The watch was Photoshopped out of the picture and, as if a miracle, the scandal disappeared! Except they forgot the glossy tabletop—the reflection of the watch, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, remained as evidence. (The story may be found here, along with the damning photos, if you can stand the snarky writing.) Owning such a watch may be considered bad form among the humble clergy, hiding it, however, is even worse. I don’t mean to single out Patriarch Kirill—the Russians have had a pretty rough go of it, what with Stalin and Reagan and all—but religions seldom like to have their coffers examined. The laity will pay handsomely to avoid the extra work salvation demands. Herein lies the rub: salvation has become less tangible as material wealth has expanded. Many people have mistaken one for the other. It’s just that they don’t want to get caught enjoying a little too much of the one at the expense of the other.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

3 thoughts on “Watch, and Pray

  1. A $30,000 watch, thats ‘chump change according to some of the stuff I see here in Jerusalem, including one or two ‘biblical scholars in on the ‘game. Being closer to the plate, one sees whats on the plate. Next week is Succoth or what the Christians call Feast of the Tabernacles and there’s this yearly parade when all the fundamentalist from abroad march dn the main street, handing out candy and other items, the rel kids are always the first in line, which is good for ones soul, little do they know that the rel are the first in line so as to destroy all that non-kosher candy handed out by the fundamentalists, lest rest of the Jewish/Arab kids get their share and all are happy.. Just another day in Paradise.

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  2. I’m only guessing here, but the watch was probably a gift. That’s how the pastor of my parent’s church drove a Cadillac. Could the watch have been sold and the money used to feed the poor? Sure, but the real problem is too much access and too many people with nothing better to do than find fault. And as always, the cover-up is worse than the perceived sin.

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  3. I have the Mercedes of the former Syrian Archbishop of Jerusalem, 1967 model, actually he had two Mercedes, one black for smuggling arms and ammunition and another white 1967 model which was used for ‘leisure activities’ on Saturday and Sunday. The priest was eventually arrested by Israel authorities for smuggling weapons, and given 11-12 yrs in prison. Within a year a ‘deal’ was made and he was released from Israel prison and deported never to return to Israel. He is still a priest, living abroad. Restored vehicle is up for sale.

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