The EditorsApril 30, 2020
Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Amid the death and suffering we see all around us during the coronavirus pandemic, many Catholics have experienced other painful disruptions to their lives as well: a sacramental famine, as most Catholics have been cut off from weekly Mass and the reception of Communion, but also a famine of physical fellowship, of the biblical notion of koinonia, as most are also separated by quarantine from the community we found in our parishes and church ministries.

Many of us assume that when the pandemic is finally contained, our liturgical and community life will return to normal or something approaching it. But there is an ominous and spreading threat to any restoration of vibrant community in many of our parishes, for one simple reason: a shortage of money. 

There is an ominous and spreading threat to any restoration of vibrant community in many of our parishes, for one simple reason: a shortage of money.

In a recent interview with Crux, Andrew Robison, the president of Petrus Development, which helps Catholic ministries build financially stable programming, estimated that because of the near-universal cancellation of Masses around the country, most Catholic parishes are facing a 50 percent to 70 percent dropoff in weekly donations. Further, traditional fundraising events large and small—even the beloved Friday fish fry—have been canceled everywhere. Finally, pastors who relied on large and generous congregations on major holidays like Easter for a financial boost had to lock their doors instead and celebrated Mass facing empty pews.

Perhaps the most startling reminder of this painful reality came last week in an announcement from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that the iconic church “will not be able to sustain operations in the coming weeks ahead” because the cathedral is facing “an expected shortfall of 6.5 million dollars.” The announcement noted that St. Patrick’s receives no outside support and has no endowment; it is dependent upon Mass collections, tourist donations, bookstore sales, event revenue and fundraising to finance its operations. One can imagine, then, the financial duress thousands of other parishes are under, particularly when the typical U.S. Catholic parish has a rainy-day fund that covers less than seven weeks of operating expenses. And many of these parishes, particularly those with schools, were already running a deficit.

Most Catholic parishes allow and encourage parishioners to give online, of course, but such mechanisms have never been as remunerative as in-person collections or donation envelopes. Further, the financial privation faced by those who have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs has forced a sobering realization upon many parishioners: One cannot give of one’s time, talent and treasure when we are all quarantined—and when vast numbers of Americans have seen their treasure imperiled or significantly diminished.

One cannot give of one’s time, talent and treasure when we are all quarantined—and when vast numbers of Americans have seen their treasure imperiled or significantly diminished.

Equally distressing is the plight of lay men and women who are employed by their parish. As America reported in March, across the country many parishes and dioceses have had to lay off employees, including liturgical musicians, rectory personnel, maintenance workers and more. While many parishes hope to rehire these employees once the pandemic is contained, the uncertain financial future will not permit that unless some financial windfall makes up for several months of losses. And as Thomas J. Reese, S.J., has noted, even when the coronavirus is contained, necessary social distancing norms will restrict Mass attendance to a fraction of its pre-pandemic size, perhaps for up to 18 months.

If we want to emerge from this calamity to find our church doors open and traditional pastoral care restored, our churches need our financial generosity as well as our prayers.

It goes without saying that our primary focus should be on helping the victims of the coronavirus pandemic and cooperating to eradicate or contain it as soon as possible. At the same time, it is worth remembering that the parishes and church structures our parents and grandparents helped build with their financial contributions—oftentimes, as in the case of St. Patrick’s and many other big-city cathedrals, with the nickels and dimes of men and women who struggled to give even that widow’s mite—are desperately in need of our generosity. If we want to emerge from this calamity to find our church doors open and traditional pastoral care restored, our churches need our financial generosity as well as our prayers.

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