Many Catholics ask, “Why does the Church need money?”
In one regard, answering the question is easy. At my parish, Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill, we allow parishioners to review the entire budget at an annual meeting. They can see the parish’s expenses for themselves: obvious ones like clergy, liturgical supplies, music, youth ministry, social services and religious education; and less obvious ones, like the school subsidy, the Star Herald, interest on loans, office supplies, insurance and utilities. It is true that some of these expenses are mitigated by tuition, fees and special collections. But for the most part, these expenses must be paid by the parish’s Sunday collections.
In another regard, the answer to the question is difficult. Surely most people realize that parishes have these expenses. Yet I think they hold a number of misconceptions about parish finances. Let me address four specific claims.
— “Churches don’t pay taxes.” Taxes are a big expense for households and businesses, but fortunately churches are not taxed. Nevertheless, churches have other expenses.
— “Churches operate only on weekends.” Of course, this isn’t true. Most parish offices are open during business hours Monday through Friday. During these office hours, priests and other staff have regular appointments, parishioners come for Mass cards, and the needy seek assistance. Religious education classes are held on a couple of weekday afternoons and evenings. Ministries and prayer groups use meeting space. Daily Mass, funerals, wedding rehearsals, and choir practice also keep the church doors open throughout the week.
— “Parishes receive financial help from the diocese.” In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite. Most dioceses are funded by two sources: an assessment on parishes (usually a percentage of their annual income) and a direct appeal to the parishioners of the diocese, usually called the bishop’s annual appeal. Directly or indirectly, all of the money that the diocese has is from the parishioners. In the past, the Diocese of Camden did loan money to parishes running deficits. That practice has become unsustainable. Since it is unlikely to be fully repaid, the diocese has taken steps to reduce its operating costs, including the elimination of many positions.
— “The Vatican has lots of money.” In order to dispel the myth of a wealthy Vatican, in 1981 Pope John Paul II ordered annual financial reports reviewed by independent auditors. These reports identify the Vatican’s expenses, including the pope’s pastoral visits around the world. They also explain that much of the Vatican’s income comes from dioceses and Peter’s Pence, a special collection taken in June. Again, the truth is that the higher level relies for money from lower levels — parishes rely on parishioners, dioceses rely on parishes, and the Vatican relies on dioceses. Despite increased financial transparency, the myth lives on. Many Catholics would like to believe their church is rich. Wealth is considered a sign of success and naturally they want their church to be successful. Of course, the real test of the church’s success is the saints it has formed — and here there is no cause for shame.
Whenever I hear people complain about their parish asking for money, I wonder why they are so upset. Of course, weekly pleas for money are tiresome and interfere with worship. But I know many priests who are afraid to ask for money — and rarely do, except when required by the bishop’s annual appeal.
I also wonder what these people think the parish will use the money for. Besides paying its operating expenses, Christ Our Light also provides financial assistance to those in legitimate need. Emergency housing and a gas or food gift card are part of our charitable outreach.
I think the greatest reason people complain about their parish’s appeal for money is because they view it as a necessary evil. For many people, finances are a constant challenge. They go to church to escape worldly problems and find spiritual inspiration. It is no wonder that they can be troubled when they hear the priest talk about money.
I humbly offer two responses. First, it must be conceded that the parish, too, exists in the world and also faces financial challenges. The parish doesn’t produce things for sale, so it depends on donations. Second, money is neutral. It can be used for evil, but it can also be used to accomplish great good. When people give to the church or a charity, it is often because they believe the organization can use their money to do good things.
Like time and talent, treasure can also transform the world. Parishioners should see that their donations help fulfill the mission Christ gave to all of us.
Father Jon Thomas is parochial vicar at The Catholic Community of Christ Our Light, Cherry Hill.
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