How does this upheaval impact the many Catholic parishes across the United States? The best word at this juncture may be “unevenly,” since there was significant imbalance of resources among parishes and dioceses before the Covid-19 reached the American shore not to mention various spiritualities and priorities. One of our readers offered the thought that we might see the end of the “parish structure” during this time. I am not quite that pessimistic; but my gut tells me there may be an exodus toward smallness. I have seen small churches in economically challenged circumstances function and even thrive, as in the small shark-hunting coastal village of Saliverry, Peru in 2014. In Saliverry we unexpectedly attended a family memorial Mass and the folks came over to thank us for coming! Meanwhile, outside the same church, the CYO or teen group, which identified themselves as young missionaries, was packing food to take to poor parishioners. [Later, when we were surrounded by a “tough” group of older teens near the waterfront, I whispered to Margaret in English, “Maybe it’s more teen missionaries.”]
The most urgent question across the board—aside from sacramental practice-- is survival of diocesan and parish structure in the sense of protecting long-time competent employees and continuing the essentials of the Catholic mission. Naturally, our thoughts turn immediately to cash flow since our Church employees have families to feed and there are thousands upon thousands of citizens who would literally starve without parish food outreach and the works of Catholic Charities. This was true long before the virus. I counsel on Fridays from a church site which is feeding hundreds of families every other week. If we have learned anything from Covid-19, it is that bull markets on Wall Street do not translate into the everyday life of modest and low-income Americans.
As I posted a few days ago, there is not much journalistic reporting on the current fiscal condition of the U.S. Church. With the Orlando, FL, region Covid-19 cases spiking dramatically, most media coverage here is devoted to public safety, and to the “I can’t breathe” memorials and protests. In truth, current Church financial condition are hard to gauge, in part because we have no idea how long the virus will last. Josephine Everly of the [Catholic] Leadership Conference believes that “it will be 18 to 24 months before parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions see a return to normal levels of giving.”
The assumption here is that there will be a return to normal. I told my friends some months ago that some semblance of a return to modest church attendance will not be determined by either the Church or the State: it will happen when mothers feel safe bringing their children into enclosed populated spaces, and it won’t happen one day sooner. In other words, no routine till a safe virus is developed and the country is vaccinated. I caught an article in the colorful Patheos journal that questioned whether most Catholics would come back at all, and another along the same lines in The Catholic Thing.
Another factor of the post-Corona Church is the resolution of outstanding abuse claims and diocesan bankruptcies, which of course dates back prior to Covid-19 in most cases. Since I last posted five days ago, the dioceses of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Rockville Center, Long Island, have declared bankruptcy. [A curious point: five of the six dioceses in Minnesota have declared bankruptcy; three of eight in New York State.] There are now about 25 [of 185] dioceses in bankruptcy across the country. If I were a member of a diocese in financial limbo, and especially an employee or a parent with children in the parish school, I would want at least some indication from the chancery and the parishes about the outlook for the immediate future. Like most businesses in trouble, churches tend to lead with good news, tenuous as it may be. Several diocesan websites are posting letters to the effect that everything will be done to bring all school children on campus. [If I can brag on my own diocese, our parents will have the choice of classroom or on-line. This is an inspired judgment call; would you lay down bets for a major sports team scheduled to play in August?]
I learned from a former student this week that his parish’s director of adult faith formation was dismissed. My mind jumps to several conclusions: that the parish in question is in financial hot water, that the ministry of adult formation is sitting dormant, and quite likely the parish did not file for federal salary protection, unlike 13,000 parishes across the country. I might be stone cold wrong, but if I belonged to that parish, I would inquire about whether everything is being done to retain good lay ministers and teachers. I have read plenty of on-line church bulletins from around the country that encourage the faithful to use EFT for Offertory giving. But I have yet to see any pastor admit that parish finances may make it necessary to eliminate the following positions [fill in the blanks].
I am going to move to different streams for an educational entry or two and pick up this stream late next week. I hope to have a book review and a few other entries before returning to Covid-19. I am afraid that is not going away any time fast.