Margaret and I returned home last night [Saturday, July 23] from a ten-day reunion with her family and sightseeing time in the lower Hudson Valley, primarily Westchester County. Although I have been in that region numerous times before, I still learned a great deal about the river and New York City, which we visited twice during our stay.
We had a hotel room on the river which, I discovered on a morning walk, is a neighbor to the Indian Point Energy Center, a three-unit nuclear energy plant. There is still routine exhaust smoke coming out of the facility, though it was officially decommissioned in 2021. As I understand it, though, you never just close a nuclear plant. In fact, anyone who lives within a ten-mile radius is eligible to get free iodine tablets from the government in the event of an “event” at Indian Point. I did not see any tablets at the coffee bar in our hotel room, so I presumed I could get some at the front desk by showing my car rental papers from Westchester Airport. You can never be too careful.
Travel is indeed a great teacher. On this trip I saw “The High Line” in lower Manhattan for the first time; in another first, I used the NYC bus system, and on the 14th Street Line shared space with a man holding a conversation with the ABC newscaster Peter Jennings, who died in 2005. I had my first meal in a NY Jewish Deli and later discovered the joy of a train ride on the Metro North when the air conditioning fails on the hottest day of the year [so far]. I got to the top of Bear Mountain State Park where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Certainly, one of the most memorable days was Monday when my sister-in-law took us to The Cloister Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan [near the GW Bridge access], a treasure of medieval religious art. The Cloister is the setting of James Carroll's novel of the same name, my inspiration to visit the site.
I like to visit churches, of course, and I was able to attend Saturday evening Mass near our hotel at Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and a parish four-day summer festival in Buchanan, N.Y. during the week. The former pastor of my home parish, now Most Reverend Stephen Parkes, Bishop of the Savannah, Georgia diocese, used to encourage us to bring him copies of bulletins from our travels, an excellent idea. Nowadays it is possible to visit about every parish in the United States as the bulletins are printed online. If you know how to decode bulletins—by what they report and where they remain silent—you can get a fascinating slice of parochial life across the country.
The Business of Bulletin Production
Bulletins were originally printed/mimeographed in the parish office, but after World War II several companies devised the current format of selling advertising to local vendors in exchange for publishing a more professional bulletin layout and the opportunity of parish businessmen and businesswomen to get exposure in the parish family. As a pastor, I had the same bulletin company rep for ten years in one parish and we worked well together, but my memory is that the deal was break-even. I cannot recall any profit to the parish aside from the printing and delivery of the actual product. The bulletin publication industry has much in common with professional sports—the bigger the market, the more money changes hands. I was a small market pastor. Some years later, when I opened my mental health practice, I applied as a vendor in my own mega-church’s bulletin. I was told I needed to sign a three-year contract for thousands of dollars. I was no longer in Kansas, Toto, and I could not afford to advertise in my own parish. By the time I could afford it, my clients’ health insurance contractors provided full regional on-line exposure and I did not need the bulletin, and it did not need me.
Will Bulletins Become Obsolete?
Most parishes have on-line presence to varying degrees, which raises the question of whether the hand-out bulletin will become obsolete. Two factors will determine that: first, with declining numbers of regular worshippers, will the current crop of bulletin providers remain in business; and second, will the current generations of churchgoers continue to demand an in-hand spreadsheet of certain personal parish data. For example, a staple of every church bulletin is a listing of all the coming week’s Masses with its specific intention—specifically, the name of a deceased for whom a monetary contribution or offering has been made to the celebrant of the Mass. We use the shorthand “Mass stipend” and the name of the requesting party is also highlighted. The idea that one deceased member of the parish gets “special grace in Purgatory” beyond the infinite merits poured out by Christ for all the living and the dead in every Mass, as the wording of the Eucharist Prayers makes plain, is more than a little theological stretch.
On the other hand, as Sigmund Freud observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and the Mass stipend listing in the bulletin is just a nice, Catholic thing to do, theology notwithstanding. Not to mention that taking the accompanying Mass card to the funeral home for the family has a much more Christian ring to it that, say, a medium-priced bottle of Merlot. Margaret and I send our stipend money to missionary religious orders such as Maryknoll where the offering is frequently desperately needed by the priest and the mission itself. In recent times I see that some church bulletins include an announcement that the tabernacle candle—lit 24-hours where the Eucharist is reserved—is burned “in loving memory” of a specific individual.
I have no idea what the standard Mass stipends are today in parishes. This is a factoid that is never published in bulletins because of the appearance of trafficking in holy things and the complexity of Canon 952.1 which states that a priest can accept more or less of the standard stipend determined by the bishops of a region. [When I was ordained in 1974, my region’s guideline was $2 for a low private Mass, $5 for a high or public Mass. Or as my boss instructed me, “Two or five, dead or alive.”] The standard local offering can be determined by phoning or visiting a parish office in most circumstances.
Some parish bulletins list the sick of the parish for the purpose of prayer. In the age of HIPAA there probably needs to be clear delineation that the public designation was made at the request of the family. Were I pastoring today, I would not publicly list the names of persons I had visited for the anointing of the sick, for example, without the expressed permission of the family. Of course, as the population ages, the sick lists grow progressively longer. One parish bulletin managed this situation thusly: “Names on the sick list will be included for four weeks unless the family contacts the office to request the names be included for an additional four weeks.” Those terms are more generous than my health care coverage which gives me about 72 hours to get better.
Do Bulletins Communicate Finances Well?
Parish bulletins treat of finances in a variety of ways—including avoiding the subject altogether. Where I attended Mass on July 16, the bulletin provided the collection total of the previous weekend, $4678 in envelopes, and $8098 from its EFT giving program. Doing quick math off these numbers, I figured the annual income at about $665,000. However, here again the data can be misleading. These figures come from the weekend of July 9-10, the heart of vacation season considering the parish’s location on the Hudson and near the mountains. On the other hand, what complicated the math further was an accompanying attendance table. The parish offered four Masses for the same weekend with attendance at 76, 56, 60, and 98, or a total of 290. Were I a new parishioner, I would like to have a bigger picture of the fiscal solvency of the parish operation—are these figures for offering and attendance typical or summer vacational aberrations? When I read in the paper about a parish closing anywhere in the U.S. with the usual local weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then I see the fiscal data of the past decade, I always wonder, “didn’t they see that coming?” Bulletins should, at the very least, provide parishioners with access to immediate and long-range information on the financial health of the parish and the diocese.
Bulletins—particularly on-line bulletins—can provide an excellent service by providing links to both the most recent parish and diocesan financial statements. The Diocese of Orlando, my home church now for 44 years, was recently nationally recognized for its on-line transparency in providing its annual audit for on-line review. [Curiously, my own parish’s most recent annual report on-line dates to the 2019-2020 fiscal year.] It is little known that the 1983 Code of Canon Law mandates a financial council of laity to work with the pastor:  Each parish is to have a finance council which is regulated by universal laws as well as by norms issued by the diocesan bishop; in this council the Christian faithful, selected according to the same norms, aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods. The spirit of the law is two-fold: the involvement of competent professionals in the management of the parish, and a measure of transparency in the fiscal dealings of the parish. Curiously, the “parish council,” which exists in many parishes, is a parochial recommendation of Canon Law, not an absolute requirement. It is, when taken seriously, an important facet of parochial life.
And while we are at it, check your diocesan corporate status. Most of us assume that, legally speaking, the bishop is the head of the diocesan corporation or “corporation sole.” But in some states and some dioceses this is not the case. See this instruction from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: “Each archdiocesan parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is an independent religious corporation established according to the Civil Statutes of the State of Wisconsin. The parish corporation is a civil body created solely for legal purposes. It has authority and competence only in those civil and secular matters for which it was created.” There are significant implications of such structuring when it comes to sexual abuse of minors and the allocation of awards to victims. If each parish is an independent legal entity, the potential exists for significant criminal and civil exposure that ordinarily is borne by the diocese. California was the first state to divest of the diocesan corporation sole model—in 2002, the year of “Spotlight.”
I came across one church bulletin which listed the names of the parish council members as well as the finance board members. This seems like a promising way to facilitate valuable information and to quash rumors, the bane of every parish. I did see something unusual and encouraging on the road—a parish bulletin that published a detailed account of its latest parish council meeting. Not all its minutes were encouraging; a lack of funds prevented several capital improvements from completion. On the other hand, there was a timely report by several members who participated in the diocesan synod listening sessions. The dates for future council meetings were posted in the same bulletin. One might say that such a practice is itself part of Synodality. The very existence of healthy and regular meetings/exchanges of pastor and parishioners is a healthy antidote to clericalism.
Are Bulletins useful for education purposes?
I would say that the bulletin—and the parish’s website—are often untapped possibilities. In some respects, a typical bulletin can model the worst type of education—little boxes of pithy quotes, or an insert on a profound subject, such as the Sunday Gospel that reduces the richness of Catholic faith and writing to the lowest common denominator in an extremely limited space. It is common to see links to FORMED, a traditional Catholic multimedia website established for home study. I have discomfort with a program that includes no reference to the present pope or his teachings. But more to the point, I am not sure FORMED is suited for a critical student of the faith or capable of introducing its audience to the historical depth of the Catholic Tradition.
At the very least, a church bulletin can vigorously promote adult participation in one’s own parish or a regional setting. This assumes, of course, that there are topflight Catholic adult educational opportunities in the parish or region. Catholic journalism of late has been focused on the dearth of Catholic intellectuals available to teach in Catholic universities, and this vacuum percolates down to seminaries, Catholic colleges, diocesan certification programs, and to parish personnel and volunteers. In short, we are in a religious brain drain. Much like secular colleges, we are producing religious technocratic Catholics, not the deep thinkers in the tradition of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.
About everyone I know seems to belong to a book club, and I am hearing of Catholics forming study groups, even independent of local parishes. I belong to a Trappist reading circle organized by Mepkin Abbey for those who have made retreats there. We meet monthly via Zoom to discuss segments of our current read, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. [And why is Merton excluded from FORMED?] Perhaps this is the wave of the future for faith formation and adult education, and again it dovetails with the synodal model of communal growth of faith and exchange of insight.
A church bulletin cannot educate us, but it can become a nexus of grassroots education by carrying recommendations of theologically challenging books and journals as well as links to distinguished on-line Catholic education programs such as the renowned University of Dayton’s “Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation” led by Sister Angela Ann Zukowski. In any case, observing my own parish, I see that most bulletins are left in the pew, as the reader has most likely perused it to see who died in the past week. The goal here is to make the bulletin worth taking home.