Render unto Caesar
It’s a remarkable thing; a friend said to me recently, that priests have to sing for their suppers. What he meant was that priests in Ireland depend for their upkeep on the good-will (and contributions) of their people. There are no investments that cover any shortfall, no fund to provide a soft landing, apart from one parish possibly subsiding another in the short-term. And it’s true, we really do sing for our suppers.
In Germany, for instance, there’s a church tax which the revenue commissioners in that country deduct from the wages of Catholics and just send on the cheque! I wonder what the response would be in Ireland if there was a similar proposal. (I don’t, really!)
In the early nineteenth century, the British government suggested something along those lines but it was rejected out of hand by the Catholic Church as an insidious way of buying control as the British, as a quid pro quo, required a veto on the appointment of bishops. While rejecting that proposal seemed foolish though laudable at the time, it was an astute move as it ensured an on-going close relationship between priests and people.
Yet it wasn’t an easy decision as priests depended on impoverished parishioners for their upkeep and there was continuing criticism of individual priests who were regarded as excessive in their demands. Indeed it can be said that the history of Irish Catholicism has, as a sub-theme, a centuries-old angst around the clergy and money.
In the nineteenth century secret societies, like the Whiteboys, took on the mantle of protest against what the people regarded as exorbitant clerical fees. In the winter of 1842-3 in west Sligo when there was agitation in the barony of Tireragh, Fr Edward Lavelle was PP in Kilglass and the Whiteboys organised a campaign to get people to swear oaths not to contribute to him above an agreed figure. A magistrate was told by people in Kilglass that ‘the Protestant curate on £75 was living more respectably and doing more good in the parish than Father Lavelle with ten times as much’.
After some success in Kilglass, ‘a large party of men marched on Easkey in order to administer a similar oath to parishioners there where Fr Patrick Flannelly, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, reigned supreme. The group, according to magistrate, Robert Jones, numbered 1,000 men.
A major part of the strain in relations between priests and people when it came to collections was the reluctance of priests to be, as we would phrase it now, ‘open and transparent’ about the financial affairs of a parish.
In the past, when priests were often in absolute control of their parishes, they felt disinclined – for a variety of reasons – to explain in detail to their parishioners how much was in the parish account and especially how much they themselves were earning.
In recent years, this has changed practically in every parish, though there may be a few outposts still operating out of a nineteenth century template.
Since the introduction of parish councils and parish finance committees, annual accounts are published routinely and it’s a given that transparency in financial matters is an accepted part of parish life today.
Despite that, in some parishes, there can be a robust reluctance to let people know how much money they have contributed, how it was spent and what the PP earns. Indeed sometimes such reluctance can harden into a resistance that seems impervious to persuasion or reason. But where the Church has failed, now the State is coming to the rescue.
A new regulatory agency for charitable organisations, the Charities Regulatory Authority (CRA), was established by the government last October and new regulations will come into force in the near future. Stringent criteria, already in operation in most parishes, will now have to be implemented in every parish. Accounts will have to be audited, specific regulations will have to be followed in terms of collecting, counting, banking and accounting for all money collected by charitable organisations, and that includes parishes. Annual accounts will have to be audited and it’s expected too that this will include placing on the CRA website parish accounts from every parish in Ireland. This will be a delicious prospect for parishioners who have long wondered how much money is in their parish accounts but haven’t been told for years!
While the Church for years has encouraged openness and transparency at diocesan and parish level with mixed results now the new regulations will universally enforce a new, transparent regime in every parish in Ireland.
Where church regulations were sometimes blithely ignored in the past (and the present) now it’s the law of the land and opposing it, in the future, is not an option. Every parish will have to publish its accounts because if even one parish fails to do so the whole diocese will in trouble.
I came across an unusual quote recently from Bishop Hugh Conway (1872-1893) of Killala diocese, who in speaking to his priests towards the end of his life, advised them that when they were dealing with parishioners’ money to appoint a committee, if possible of one person each village: ‘Let that committee appoint a treasurer and never be a guardian of any money of that kind and have also a secretary who will record all the actions of that committee and all that is done. Otherwise, there will be in every parish, no matter how pious and well regulated, some persons of a peculiar turn of mind who will want to find fault with everything and perhaps the people who pay least are the most censorious. You will be beyond all censure when you follow that rule’.
More than a century after Bishop Conway’s wise words, charitable organisations (including the Church) will have to get their act together. It makes sense.
It is a sad fact of life now that every parish needs to fund raise and that fund raising is an onerous and time consuming activity. Each PP needs a good committee of dedicated and talented people to do this. It goes without saying that all this should be open and above board and well regulated, of course, but it concerns me that a priest should have to use time that he should be spending on pastoral matters on this. “Closeness to the people” as Pope Francis advises doesn’t have to mean spending large amounts of time on parish finances.
I have often wondered about the income of each curate. I still see parishioners, and it’s mainly older women, pressing the large bank note into Father’s hand to request a mass to be said for a deceased relative and it disturbs me greatly. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
Within each parish there are people who have particular skills in fund raising and their talents should be used for the good of the parish. Let the pastor do what he was ordained to do, (and oh how I wish that could be he/she) give comfort and heart to the people in their distress, lift them up out of their despair and be with them in their joys and sorrows. In other words, be close to them. That also means recognising the devastation of financial and not just spiritual poverty. I do not want to see any more priests consumed with worry about having to fill the parish coffers. Just ask for help from the financial whizz kids in the area. People like to be needed and if you have a good committee and treat them with respect they will give of their talents. Show them that they are appreciated, of course! “Thank You” is often an underrated word in clerical circles! 🙂