The empty cookie jar

Sunday 1 November 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Daylight Savings Time ends 

It was a dark and stormy night, perfect for sleeping. I lay awake, tossing and turning. There was too much on my mind (namely, the parish bills). In the darkness, I heard a whimper. It was greyhound Justin. I pretended to be asleep. Justin, getting no results, began a series of short, high-pitched yelps. Then he switched tactics and began nudging the edge of my mattress with his nose. I knew resistance was futile. “What is it, boy? Did little Timmy fall in the well again?” Justin was not amused. Whatever he wanted, he wanted it now. 

I dragged myself out of bed. I flung open the rectory door. The wind and rain rushed in. “Out? Out? Want to go out?” Finally, Justin spoke. “Are you for real?” he asked. “What idiot would want to go out in this ungodly weather?” I shut the door. “Well, what exactly is it you want? Speak plainly, for Heaven’s sake. Forget this woof, woof, nudge, nudge business,” I said with some annoyance. “Oh, you humans! Sometimes I wonder why we call you dog’s best friend. Obviously, this is my ‘I-want-a-treat’ routine. Let me be perfectly clear. Fetch me a doggie cookie!”

I trudged into the kitchen and reached behind the spice rack for the jar of Pup-Salami, his favorite. He prefers Pup-Salami to bacon-flavored Begging Bits. But, alas, the jar was empty. I had failed to run down to the Pet-Rite store to restock my supplies. Justin knew it was bound to happen, and so it did.

We priests have recently found ourselves in a similar situation, dear readers. The bishop and diocesan staff members have informed us that the cookie jar is empty. Just like Justin, we all knew it would one day happen. And so it has. 

Individual parishes are not entities distinct from the Diocese of Fall River. We sink or swim together. In the Catholic ecclesiastical structure, a local Church is not a single parish but a community of parishes under the leadership of a bishop. A Catholic parish cannot operate without being part of a diocese and a diocese cannot operate without its parishes. We are part of a whole. It is, to use a Biblical phrase, a “seamless garment.” 

Many parishes have been struggling financially for decades. This I know well. Over the years, I have pastored seven parishes. All of them were in financial straits. I have never once been in a parish that had a savings account, or even a “rainy day fund” for that matter. 

The diocese has been, in a certain sense, subsidizing such parishes. This has included low-interest loans made to the parish by the diocese. It has also included “unofficial” subsidies to pay insurances and clergy/lay benefits for those parishes unable to cover the costs.

Combine this with declining church attendance, crumpling structures, rising costs, and years of low-interest banking and no-interest investment rates. All this has exhausted the diocese’s financial resources. 

The administration of the diocese has, for some time, had no source of revenue. Designated national and diocesan collections must go (legally and morally) to the designated causes. This includes the Catholic Charities Appeal, which must go to diocesan-run charitable ministries and agencies, not to chancery administration. 

Other than that, diocesan administration funds are also used to manage Church real estate; clergy needs; diocesan employees’ benefits and insurances; diocesan archives; engineering, architectural, and construction consultations; and legal counsel. This applies not only to parishes, but Catholic schools and other diocesan entities as well. 

I’ve been around long enough to remember the Cathedraticum. In our diocese, it was based on those monies collected at the door of parish churches. This was commonly called “seat money.” It was 25 cents for each adult (even if you chose not to take a seat). Seat money was based on the Protestant custom of “pew rent.” Are you old enough to remember “seat money?” Did you know that a portion of the seat money went towards the administration of the diocese? Those were simpler days. 

They say our diocese was the last one in the nation to abolish seat money. Bishop Daniel A. Cronin expressed his reservations. Without seat money, how was the diocesan administration to be funded? One wag suggested that churches install meters in their parking lots. The bishop was not amused by my attempt at a joke, but you know me, dear readers.

How do other dioceses in the United States fund administration? Ninety percent of them have been using some form of parish assessment for decades. Our new assessment system is graduated, based on a parish’s ordinary income. Poor parishes pay less; wealthy parishes pay more — sounds fair. 

So, here I stand in the kitchen. While I’m up, I think I’ll have a nice cup of warm milk in my favorite mug. My mug reads, “Keep calm and carry on.” Yes, I will. We all will. 

Is there any other option when the cookie jar is empty?

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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