The wrong way to ask Catholics for money amid the sex abuse crisis
It is that time of year when a portion of Mass is dedicated to the Annual Appeal. The collection used to be called the Cardinal’s Appeal, but this is the Archdiocese of Washington, and we’ve been having some problems with our cardinals lately. Given the ongoing scandals surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and outgoing Cardinal Donald Wuerl, asking Washington parishioners for money is more awkward and delicate than usual.
The appeal was first brought up at Mass the same weekend that Pope Francis laicized McCarrick. The priest waited until the final announcements to make the ask. He made sure people understood that the money would not go to the bishops but to ministries and other charitable works. The priest went on to say that parishioners who do not donate out of anger are punishing those who need this money most. He emphasized how we should move away from anger, especially righteous anger.
Asking Washington parishioners for money is more awkward and delicate than usual.
The following week, I went to a different parish. This time, the appeal was made via a recorded message from the auxiliary bishop, in lieu of a regular homily. It was one of the most awkward experiences I’ve had in the pews. We all sat there, listening to the disembodied voice of the bishop, who told us that while this may be a difficult year to donate, we should pray about it. The priest then followed this message by reiterating the same points and added that the money would not go to legal fees or lawyers. I heard someone behind me whisper, “Why would he say that?” Another parishioner replied, “Sex abuse.”
I get it. The money goes to work that aligns with the Gospel. I myself received a scholarship to go to a Catholic high school, which helped me become the first in my family to graduate from college. I agree it would be counterproductive to advocate for the causes I believe in and then not offer financial support for those good works. It is also evident that the priests want us to know that our money will not go to the bishops who have caused so much pain and that our donation will not perpetuate this abuse, a concern that I share. And yet I believe in the mission of the Catholic Church, and I want to support it.
So why did these appeals for much-needed funds bother me? As well intentioned as these asks were, they also lacked a sense of humility, reconciliation and repentance. Healing in the church will be furthered by a face-to-face reckoning with the faithful. By making these appeals through a recording, church leaders missed a chance for the human part of this healing. The moment an appeal is used as a replacement for that week’s homily, the opportunity for the community to hear Gospel-inspired messages of hope or forgiveness is lost. Imagine if you came to a Mass here for the first time or returned after many years and were greeted by a recording of an appeal.
Why did these appeals for much-needed funds bother me? As well intentioned as these asks were, they also lacked a sense of humility, reconciliation and repentance.
I do not doubt that there was a lot of preparation and discussion among archdiocesan staff regarding how to bring up the appeal this year. It is never easy to ask for money. Yet, in my experience of the appeal this year, the priests have seemed almost angry that some potential donors might be hesitant to give, and they have failed to acknowledge that it was the largely the institutional church, not the people in the pews, that perpetrated the abuse and the cover-up.
I understand that the priests delivering these messages might be just as angry as most of us lay people, and while I am sure it cannot be easy for them to deliver these messages, they also should take care not to simply move on as if all the news of the past year is just a speed bump on the road of our mission. What we need before these appeals is a full-fledged recognition that we as a church took a complete wrong turn and got our ourselves lost.
A lot of us are in the middle of healing our relationship with the church. Each time we decide to go back to Mass, we are actively deciding to give the church a second chance despite the heartbreak. The institutional church has a right to ask the faithful for the money it needs to continue its good work, the work of the Gospel. But along with that ask, there needs to be an apology. I am being called to acknowledge and repent for my sins and the sins of the church at a communal level, and I expect the priest to do the same. Dismissing our anger or suggesting we pray more does not lead these conversations with the right attitude.
The church was once a place of such joy for me. Each time I return to Mass, I am reminded of the hurt that this year has brought. The sexual abuse crisis is not something we can just move past quickly, and the church needs to recognize that. Come next Sunday, I will show up and try again to heal this wound. I can only hope that the priests and hierarchy will recognize that wound and understand the need to ask for forgiveness before they ask for money.