Bransfield, West Virginia, and the Tragedy of Greed

Bransfield, West Virginia, and the Tragedy of Greed September 14, 2019

I am grateful to the Washington Post for keeping up their excellent reporting on the sickening case of ex-Bishop Bransfield’s sinful excesses.

I commented on their last piece earlier this summer, and now they’ve released another. This one goes into more detail about how Bransfield lived during the thirteen years he was the shepherd of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in America. We get to hear about how, when the Catholics of West Virginia took a bus from Wheeling to Washington DC for a pilgrimage, Bransfield decided to charter a private jet and then a limousine from the airport. That cost the diocese $6,769. He spent millions of the Church’s money on expensive vacations, shopping sprees, fancy hotels and the like, which the Posts says he called “necessary breaks from his religious responsibilities.” 

Some parts of West Virginia are so poor they can’t afford running water in their homes, and their shepherd took “necessary breaks” at Palm Beach penthouses.

“In an interview with The Post, Bransfield lamented the lack of shopping opportunities in the Mountain State. “I didn’t have the opportunity in West Virginia to live the lifestyle I lived in Washington,” he said.”

It’s that entitled self-indulgence that gets to me the most.

Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled around West Virginia so many times. I’ve never lived there, though my ancestors did. But I’ve been there more times than I can count. And I have relatives who live in the Washington, DC area as well. It takes less than five hours to drive through West Virginia to Washington. If you left at sunrise in the summertime, you’d be there by lunch. Sometimes I stayed with my cousins in the DC area for a week and then drove with them to the state park in Pocahontas County for our family reunion. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful drive. One minute you’re in civilization and the next you’re someplace else, someplace straight out of a fairy tale. The roads take a corkscrew path up mountains just high enough to make your ears pop, through woods  teeming with life. Usually there’s nothing but a thin guardrail and a line of trees between you and a neck-breaking drop, but sometimes there’s enough of a gravel berm that you can park and look out at the view.  And the view is always worth seeing. You stare out at the hills that go on forever, out until they merge with the misty horizon.

It’s always misty up there, for some reason, even when it’s dry down in the levels.

I wonder if Bransfield ever saw that view, in the thirteen years he “served” Wheeling-Charleton, on any of his shopping expeditions.

Why does a bishop need to go shopping, anyway?

When I was my daughter’s age, I thought priests always wore clerical blacks. I supposed they had pajamas, but I wondered if even the pajamas had a white collar.  The way to tell a bishop from a priest, when they weren’t in their vestments for Mass, was that a bishop wore a big metal cross over his clerical blacks and a ring that looked like a Ring Pop. The way to tell them apart when vested, was that the bishop had the biggest hat. And I know it’s a little more complicated in practice, but still, what’s a bishop doing on a shopping spree?

And the fact that he felt he had to fly to a different state to buy treats.

No, there’s not a terrible amount of luxury in West Virginia, but there are artists and craftsmen there. Some of them are brilliant.

I have a small collection of elephant figurines in my curio cabinet, and one of them is carved out of a lump of glazed and polished coal. It was part of a huge display of hand-carved coal figurines for sale at Tamarack. Tamarack is the cultural center in Beckley, West Virginia. It’s a big crown-shaped building with a fancy food court and nice clean bathrooms for the tourists on their way to state parks, but most of Tamarack is taken up by shops selling handmade art and crafts by West Virginian artists. This isn’t amateur hobby art you’d find at a craft show, but really serious art and the very best handmade crafts. There are oil paintings and fine art photographs. There are those bizarre, delicate coal figurines of varying sizes. There’s Shaker-style wood furniture and toys, simple and elegant and sturdy enough to survive an earthquake. And yes, you can buy clothing and jewelry for your bishop there– handcrafted clothing and jewelry curated by a very fussy jury of critics. Only the best. If you ever go to West Virginia, you mustn’t miss it.

If I were the wealthiest and most self-indulgent person I could imagine, I’d go to Tamarack and buy one of each of those odd coal sculptures, then build a gallery on my house to display my collection. I’d also buy clothing and jewelry and scarves and stationery and sturdy furniture there. I’d have the rainbow trout in their food court and buy some tacos to eat on the way home. And then I’d probably go shopping elsewhere, for other things in other parts of the world, but I’d start by buying out all the local artists and pumping millions into the local, impoverished economy. And it wouldn’t be some kind of  noble sacrifice, it would only be pampering myself. Those things are worth buying not as an act of charity, but because they’re nice things.

Bransfield took it that much further. He chartered a jet somewhere else, to a much more economically prosperous area, to pamper himself in exactly the manner he was accustomed to instead of pampering himself in a way that might accidentally help some of the people of West Virginia. That’s how greedy he was.

I wonder if he ever heard of Tamarack.

I wonder if he ever bothered to learn even the most basic things about the state he lived in for thirteen years.

They say the shepherd should smell like the sheep.

There are a lot of smells in West Virginia: the sulfur reek of the coal and fracking industries; the fragrance of magnolias and pines; the loamy, mushroomy, living smell of a forest; that musty stench that goes along with intense poverty, no matter how carefully a destitute person tries to keep clean. There are places here so poor that they don’t have indoor plumbing, not because they can’t pay the water bill but because the infrastructure is too old to work, so the schools hand out cases of bottled water for bathing. Those don’t smell nice. There are also log cabins up in Watoga State Park with nice big fireplaces that have been warming tourists on chilly mountain evenings since the 1930s, and they smell like incense.

In thirteen years, did Bransfield ever once spend enough time with his flock to smell like any of that?

Christ said that the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, while the hireling abandons. We all know which one Bransfield was.

His wickedness is enraging and comically over-the-top, the actions of a cartoon villain with a handlebar mustache. But it’s also so profoundly sad.

God did not and cannot abandon West Virginia, or anywhere else. He is here, suffering with the poor as they suffer, bearing their hardships as His own. He is here, marveling with those who marvel at the beauty because beauty is a Divine attribute, a sign of His presence and a gift to us. He is here, inspiring all the artists and delighting in their work. But the hierarchy of the Church? Our bishops? They don’t care. They don’t see. They don’t suffer with the poor or try to help. And since they don’t come down to this level and suffer, they don’t see so many things that are worth seeing.

They can say they’re sorry now, but they let this self-indulgent Caligula hold the reins of the diocese for thirteen years before they asked questions. They abandoned their flock in their hearts. They have no interest in smelling like sheep. They don’t even stop to think about the sheep. They don’t walk the path the sheep must walk; they charter jets to fly over it.

And that in itself is a very good metaphor, to explain why greed is a sin that hurts everyone– not only the needy, but the greedy as well. Greedy, self-indulgent people never have that life-altering view from the mountaintop because they don’t climb the mountain. They charter a jet.

Bransfield chartered the jet, and the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston suffered.

I can’t think of a worse thing to say about a shepherd.

(image via Pixabay) 


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