The Vatican has stepped up long-planned overhauls of its finances after losses in London real estate and declining revenues at the Vatican Museum.
When I read the news in The Wall Street Journal about the Vatican’s desperate financial situation, I knew what I had to do: get on the phone to Pope Francis and offer to help.
I was the right man, at the right time, for the job. Things were dire: 300 million Euros down the drain on an ill-conceived London real estate project; a 100 million Euro operating deficit this year; and losses in the Church’s only reliable profit center–the Vatican Museum Gift Shop, where you can buy “My parish priest went to the Vatican and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts.
Why me? Let me count the ways. Former altar boy. One summer clerking in the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal government procurement agency that buys non-defense humdrum stuff for Washington like snow tires and toilet paper. (Editor: Thanks for not making a toilet paper joke.) The Pope was quoted in the Journal as saying he needed to impose “new rules on procurement to save money and prevent corruption.” If you learn by your mistakes, you’ve come to the right place as the U.S. government has a lot of experience making mistakes, wasting money and ignoring corruption.
And then there’s my extensive experience in insolvency. I straddle the border between the Bankruptcy Code of 1978 and the Bankruptcy Act of 1938, known to its friends as “The Chandler Act.” I was doing bankruptcies back when they still numbered the chapters with Roman numerals!
I’ve got the Pope on speed-dial, and with the tap of one finger I’ve got Il Papa on the line.
“Allo?” he asks in the comic opera Italian all Vicars of Christ on Earth are required to use by canon law.
“It’s me, you doofus, haven’t you go caller ID?”
“I do, but I was lying back in the Papal Barca Lounger with my eyes closed.”
“Under a lot of stress these days?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve got ‘Vatican expert’ Sandro Magister all over me like a cheap suit, and somebody named Massimo Franco . . .”
“Author of The Bergoglio Enigma?”
“That’s him. Complaining of me not ‘having a forward-looking strategy.’ Fer Christ sake . . .”
“We’re the One True Church–we’re supposed to look backwards.”
I could sympathize with him. After he was elected Francis went about liberalizing just about everything he touched, to the cheers of non-Catholics everywhere. It’s like me applauding the New York Jets for lousy draft picks; none of my business, but hey–if it weakens the AFC East, so much the better.
“I think what you need to do,” I began in a calm, professional tone of voice, “is focus on your core competencies.”
“Please . . . don’t talk to me in consultant-speak.”
“You want to hear a consultant joke?”
“You have free will–I know I cannot stop you.”
“What’s the difference between a consulting firm and a flock of starlings?”
“I don’t know–what?”
“A flock of starlings will fly into town, shit on your head for a week and fly out again, but won’t send you a bill for it.”
“Ha ha, my son, but this is no time for levity. Let’s get back to your blizzard of buzzwords. You mentioned something about ‘core competencies.’”
“Right. What the hell were you thinking, investing in London real estate?”
“I thought about opening an outlet there. We are falling far behind Starbucks and are now only the world’s #2 landholder.”
“You don’t have to own, you can rent, like WeWork.”
“Temporary office space you sublet. You could brand yourself–I don’t know–‘WePray’ or something like that.”
“No, I’ve given up on England. I completely forgot about the bitter feelings they have for us there because of Henry VIII.”
“Yeah, too bad about the English Reformation. Broke up what would have been a powerhouse marketing combo. ”
“Not as bad as the whole Martin Luther thing, but still.”
As his voice trailed off, a thought occurred to me. “Hey–I don’t want to say ‘Eureka’ or anything . . .”
“Don’t tell me an idea actually entered that great gaping void that is your head.”
“You know what it was that pissed Luther off initially?”
“Designer Holy Water?”
“Sunday Mass at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday?”
“No. It was selling indulgences.”
“Pay the church 2,000 pfennigs and you get out of Purgatory free.”
“What does that have to do with my problem?”
“Listen, you ding-dong. If you start selling indulgences again, you’re home free. The cost-of-goods sold is negligible, and its payable long after you recognize the revenue. There’s no interest expense to finance the receivables!”
An evil gleam lit his eyes, and the corners of his mouth turned slowly upwards, like a Cheshire Cat’s.
“Penny for your thoughts?” I asked.
“It’ll cost you more than that–we’re back in business!”