One of the dependable pleasures of my life is a regular evening phone call from one of the senior priests of my diocese. He was an established pastor when I arrived in Florida in 1978 and we served on numerous committees together over the years, including one which developed the first policy on maternity leave for lay employees of the diocese. Now well into retirement, he called last night, and our conversation turned rapidly toward the challenges to our Church and diocese presented by the Covid-19. We agreed that there is a sea change across the board, that the “new normal” will take a long time to unfold. Several things resonated strongly with both of us: a sense that a good many of our parishes do not have the resources for a long term shut down for reasons of public safety; and second, that many Catholics who were somewhat borderline about Sunday Mass may never come back.
[I asked him, toward the end, “what would you do if you were pastoring today, and he immediately quipped, ‘I’d suffer along with everybody else.”]
How bad will it be for parishes and parochial schools? Despite the soundness of the prediction, it was somewhat unnerving to see that Central Florida’s economic flagship, so to speak, Disneyworld, may not open until January 2021—at a projected attendance of 25% in the first six months and 50% in the last six months. Disney, as the USA Today story explains, faces some extraordinary challenges in terms of health safety, as anyone who has visited the facility can easily imagine. How do we maintain “safe distancing” in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” or the cozy French pavilion at EPCOT, one of my favorites? The Magic Kingdom is hardly the only industry with such problems, and the forecasts for Disney are quite applicable across the board for all institutions—from meat packing to parish operations.
I received an interesting article by Monsignor Charles Pope in Sunday’s National Catholic Register on some practical steps that parishes can undertake to allow at least some access to the sacraments, depending on local ordinance and intensity of “hot spots.” I do not agree with every one of them, but the thinking was crisp and practical. Monsignor Pope was wise to recommend some flexibility in matters of Canon Law, reminding us that “these are not normal times.” Communion on the tongue, he writes, should not be a viable option for the foreseeable future. Nor will we return to anything close to normal until a reliable vaccine is available, not just in the United States, but globally.
It is a shock to the system when one’s way of life is disrupted. One example will suffice: here in Orange County, Florida, the public-school system announced this week that schools will remain closed for the rest of this current school year. [I am surprised anyone doubted that.] Our Catholic school system follows the public-school calendar, so our schools will remain closed, too, and the homeschooling on-line will continue till the end of May. From what I understand, there is a rather strong backlash about this directed at Catholic school administrators. Someone posted this observation: “To educate a child, it takes a village. To homeschool a child, it takes a still.”
As my pastor noted at the end of Sunday morning’s televised parish Mass, an exceptionally large number of highly charged church and personal events have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. All our initiation sacraments of the spring remain to be celebrated, including First Communion. Weddings and funerals have been postponed. Even if we can somehow celebrate these events in full ritual down the road, and that is a big “if,” they will obviously be muted by the fact that the planned event—in its proper liturgical and/or traditional time--will be postponed. High school graduation on December 5? Baptizing Catechumens on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary time? St. Augustine wrote that time is linear, it moves with historical energy that we cannot undo. Perhaps Augustine coined the phrase “the moment is lost.”
But the loss of life moments is not the only problem facing the Church, and these may be relatively insignificant when the historians tally the toll of this decade. The major immediate concern is money, period. From funding research to keeping Catholic schools open, the “new economy” will have to be worked with. Presently the unemployment rate in the United States is 20%. At the height of the Great Depression, the rate fell to 25%. Moreover, the federal government has already allocated several trillions of dollars for one-time stop gap aid to individuals and small businesses—a temporary one-time boost. Since the Covid-19 was not budgeted for, the money going out must be gotten quickly in some fashion. One solution is simply printing more dollars, which naturally decreases the value of the dollars you have in your wallet. The other method is borrowing, which places a significant portion of our economy in the hands of banks and other nations. [Ask your financial planner/consultant for a better explanation.]
To return to the local parish setting, cash is running low. Before the virus crisis began, about 20 dioceses in the United States had filed for bankruptcy, mostly due to clerical sexual abuse settlements but also due to poor management and “edifice complex” compulsions. In truth, however, the biggest financial problem facing the American Church is the nature of the day-to-day parish existence. For my entire life, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been cited as one of the lowest in terms of financial support from members. Christians in general contribute 2.2% of income, Catholics 1.1%. Weekly Catholic church attendance presently runs to the 25%-30% range. During the Corona virus shut down, the Archdiocese of New York is losing $1 million per week. It is unlikely that any church institution will “recapture” what it lost during the pandemic, given that the return of parishioners to Mass will probably be lengthy and protracted…and that assumes no second wave. In the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, two schools--dependent upon diocesan subsidies--are closing due to the virus.
Bishops, by closing parishes and schools, selling property, and laying off personnel at the diocesan and parish level, have been able to shield parishioners to some degree from the outside rail of church financial bad news. But in today's environment, that strategy will be very hard to maintain. In the next post on this stream, I will talk about some of the inventive rethinking it will take to adjust to a very “new normal.”
Who says timing isn’t everything? As I was wrapping up this post, I received an email from my boss at the rural Catholic Charities clinic where I have worked every Monday for four years. She informed me that “during changes and closures needed during the past weeks” her position was being laid off.