I have just been asked two questions that dovetail, I think, rather nicely. One question asks, “Why give so much money to the church?” The second asks “Why not give more money to the church?” I am afraid that the answers to both questions will be rather whiny. A dear and respected friend of mine told me “Don’t do it. It’s Christmas. Write something uplifting, especially after that horrible article about eating babies. Why must you always be so grim?” I just can’t get the questions out of my mind. I am sure that in the following two articles there will be something to offend nearly everyone. Here goes.
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
Friends of mine are always criticizing my Catholic faith. Now they are all over me like a tax auditor on a pyramid scheme. They ask me how I can be so generous to a church that misuses money so often. The priests and bishops live in mansions and the pope wears jewels and little red slippers and lives in a palace. What should I tell them?
First let me laugh. The clergy doesn’t live in palaces. We live in our offices, except for those who have bailed. That goes for the pope on down. Some offices are nicer than others, but they are still offices. A priest’s office is usually called a rectory. I live in a rectory. The phone rings night and day and it’s rarely someone calling with good news. The computer on which I am writing is about 8 feet from my bed. The usual greeting when I wander downstairs in the morning is “Mrs. Von der Vogelweide died last night. Would you like some coffee?”
My kitchen is at street level. You have no idea how irritating it is to have the pasta just about al dente when a parishioner comes, looks in the kitchen window and joyfully says, “Oh good, the priest is here and he’s not doing anything.” I turn off the pasta, open the door and in they come to explain how their mother-in-law’s Pekinese is demonically possessed. An hour later I, return to my pasta, cold and mushy, the pasta that is, and eat hurriedly because the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Motion starts in five minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being a priest. I get to say Mass, but to say that I live in a mansion is a hoot! It’s a very nice house in which I have a bedroom and a sitting room in which I never sit. As for the pope’s jeweled miters and red slippers, I imagine he puts them on and wraps himself in an antique cloth of gold cope and gets comfortable on the papal throne to watch Monday night football. This almost never happens.
Do you have any idea what an uncomfortable garment a cope is? Over street clothes one puts on an alb, a stole, a cope, a humeral veil, picks up the monstrance, (which is a display case for the Blessed Sacrament, made out of brass. The gold is not real. It is just gold plating. The “gems” on it are glass.) So there I am resplendent in my “gold and jewels.” I then carry the monstrance around the block in eighty degree heat while the faithful chant with varying degrees of success. Talk about a life of luxury! Even the Renaissance popes and cardinals, some of whom did live scandalous lives, spent the money on some of the greatest art the world has ever known and have created a tourist industry that has benefitted the Italian people ever since.
There are few intuitions that use money as well as the Catholic Church. We maintain hospitals, orphanages, schools, retirement homes, shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, counseling services and all the while we open our doors to the poor and rich alike for the sake of the Gospel and the salvation of humanity. We are the largest charitable institution in the world with, arguably, one of the lowest administrative costs of any charity. It’s a real money saver when the CEO lives above the shop. I, like the pope, live in my main place of employment, right next to the factory floor. How many CEO’s do you know who live at the factory?
For twenty years, I was pastor of a parish with a soup kitchen, a school for poor refugee children, a food pantry and a clothing room. I lived upstairs from it all. I will never forget when one of our soup kitchen guests was sitting in my room sleeping off his pre-dinner cocktail. At another point in my ministry, a gang was going through the rectory on weekly basis, looking for what they could steal. Had I come into my room when they were going through the drawers and throwing the contents on the floor, I have no doubt I would have been killed. There was another time when a heroin addict was robbing us daily. So much for life in the mansion.
Every priest I know whether they are in poor or rich parishes have similar stories. We are the lucky ones. The ones who have it rough are those whose lives are in constant danger because of anti-Catholic prejudice. They willingly serve in places guaranteed to shorten their lives. I feel like a slacker because I live in an actual house, looney bin though it may be. I have known a few corrupt priests and a few nuns who had forgotten their vows of poverty, but all in all, the great majority of nuns, deacons, priests and especially bishops I have known are self sacrificing work-aholics who do it for the love of God, Church and humanity. There are burn outs and sinners among us, but even the burn-outs usually burned out because they were trying to do something worth doing.
Let me tell you about my finances. At first glance it seems like a good deal. I get a house, auto and health insurance, a salary, and a generous per diem for food. (We have no cook or house keeper.) Last year the salary paid me by the parish came to a little over $40,000. Not bad. Let’s look a little more closely. I am self employed and must pay the social security tax. I am not an order priest and do not take a vow of poverty. I am responsible for my own finances and I must pay federal and state income tax for which I can claim no dependents. I can’t retire until I’m 70 and then my pension as a priest is about $1,200.00 a month. If I live in a rectory, the pension is reduced to $550 a month, so unless I want to live in another office or a cardboard box in my golden years, I must have payroll deductions taken out of my check. When all the dust settles, my take home pay as a pastor last year was $22,750. Money given for Masses, weddings and baptisms all go to the parish unless there is a gift for the priest that is clearly designated as such. That’s not a lot for a someone who has two graduate degrees and 40 years seniority in the company. I am responsible for my own auto expenses, my clothing, medications and all the stuff that comprises life in our times.
In some dioceses of the US priest make more, in some they make less. Priests in the developing world make a whole lot less. Twenty-two or 23 thousand isn’t bad, really. What do I need money for? Actually, the scary thing is retirement. I will need the money for retirement. Just when an old man needs people he knows and loves around him, the priest is compelled to retire. There is a wonderful party, a hearty handclasp and quick goodbye. Things were not always this way. Up until 1972, when the young progressives demanded the removal of older pastors from the better parishes, it was expected that a priest would die in the rectory where he had served for most of his life. He may have been an old fossil, but he was everybody’s grandfather. He may have been difficult, but he was yours. That’s gone.
The modern more efficient Church doesn’t want a parish to get stale so they move priests around like deck chairs on a cruise ship. The priest grows old having served in 4 or 5 different churches. He knows a lot of people, but isn’t really close to many of them. No kids no grandkids. He is just old. I remember a cop who told me about going to some 3rd rate retirement home in his paddy wagon to pick up a body bag that had no one to claim it. He unzipped it and there he saw a cold gray face and the Roman collar beneath it. I remember a prestigious old monsignor who had been a seminary rector and who lived in a room in a church basement near the boiler room. He stayed there until the last trip to the hospital. And the old priest’s photo album is a very sad thing. When he dies there are all those pictures of a smiling priest at some sacramental event with people whose names he probably didn’t know. Those whose job it is to go through his things wonder what to do with the pictures. They get put in a box, and thrown away at some later date. The only person to whom they had any meaning has no more need of them. The saying is that there is no one so dead as a dead priest. Remember to pray for the repose of the soul of your priests. You are the only children they have who can do that.
Cheer up. I am not trying to depress you. Really, I’m not. When I was young this is not the way it was. A priest died in his rectory and was mourned by those who knew and loved him. That is gone now. Priests are despised and mistrusted by many if not most. They have no permanent home. There is very little respect given the priest these days. People are constantly mad at priests for the situation of the world, the situation of the Church, the fact that when they called the rectory they got an answering machine, and when they finally got him on the phone, the narrow minded so-and-so wouldn’t do a garden wedding for them next Saturday.
All this means a young man who signs up for the priesthood in these times is one of the most heroic people you are ever going to meet. He may be weak and flawed and even a little odd, but he is not doing it for the perks, the prestige or the pay. He is doing it because he loves Christ and the Church. Somebody like me is always whining, but the truth is, in some ways, things have never been better in the Church.
The young men and women entering religious life, at least the ones I have known, make me want to do it all over again. They sign on for persecution and poverty, a poverty that goes beyond mere deprivation of money and luxuries. It is the poverty of Christ who had nowhere to lay His head. Candidates for the religious life, if they have their eyes open, are looking for only one treasure, the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ and Him crucified. All else they count a loss. They are worth supporting in their work. Believe me, they aren’t in it for the money.