Fr Chris Townsend: Let’s Talk About Money
The question of “sacraments for sale” is a sensitive one — and Fr Chris Townshend is trying to make sense of it. (Photo: Steve Buissinne)
The month of January is always a really good time to bring up the topic of money.
When everybody is stressing with school fees and uniforms and the costs of the festive season coming home to roost, this is a perfect time for the Church to get in there and muscle into the queue of those demanding a slice of the recession pie most families are serving up.
Yep. The topic of money is about as welcome as Oliver Twist’s supplication, “Please, Sir, I want some more…”
I have been following the recent comments by Pope Francis about sacraments being charged for. I’ve watched the vigorous debate internationally, and even on the Facebook page of The Southern Cross, with a wry smile.
What Type of Church Are We?
Let’s talk honestly then about what type of Church we are.
If we remain a sacramentally-focused Church, as many parishes are, we will need to have an honest discussion about the costs of sacraments and the need for the Church to survive.
Pope Francis has never really been a parish priest, and that’s where his occasional naivety comes from. But I also have to acknowledge that the situation he speaks of is true.
In my 18 years as a priest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sacraments being denied to anyone because of their inability to pay or contribute. I am, however, very familiar with the situation where Requiem Masses have been denied to families because the deceased came short in her contribution to the kabelo/isondlo/planned giving.
This type of financial tyranny is purely logical. Parishes need to pay accounts, often with the biggest bill being the levies to the diocese. In that pursuit, we can easily lose the story of the person concerned: her suffering, how she paid the contribution to the parish for her whole family, fearing this day and how she never missed her contribution to her burial society and sodalities like St Anne’s and Sacred Heart precisely to avoid this moment. Because we all want the dignity of a beautiful funeral.
There is More to the Story
I fully understand this. I have been complicit in this. But there is more to the story.
You see, in my experience, the tragic situation above is not the norm. People and families would often come to the church without asking and pay the deceased person’s contribution. Sodalities and burial societies made a plan.
The biggest problem is that simony — the sale of the holy — has become commonplace in our society.
Look at the “Doom Pastor” Church and the Grace-and-Snakeoil churches that pop up. Many Catholics fall for this type of sin when they seek healing and financial prosperity outside the Church.
Many of the Prosperity Gospel churches — which are always more prominent in times of financial stress — are predicated on the principle of “Pay first. Grace will follow”. It makes our Holy God a caricature of a Donald Trump-style salesman.
This brings us to the important point of the end of January. 2018 was a difficult year for most parishes. There is no fat.
The Rich Won’t Pay Since they Don’t See ‘Value’
Yes, we do need to run leaner and more efficient parishes. Yes, we do need to make sure that the bills are being paid. But if we are struggling, we need to check the fundamental principle that the people will pay if they feel part of something. They see value and transparency.
The more we commoditise the sacraments and the life of the Church, the more we turn the Church into a business and not a community. And that is the ancient sin of simony.
And on a final note, let me address my boss, Pope Francis. Boss, the real problem is not the poor. You see, they value the Church. In my experience, this is never a problem.
The Church might not get a million rand from the poor, but that sweaty R10 note pulled from the bra strap of an 87 year old woman has the value of all the lotto in the world.
The real problem, Boss, is that those with money have money because they make everything about a transaction. They don’t see value, so they don’t feel the need to support.
I went through a stage a few years ago where I did five weddings in a row and didn’t get a cent — for parish or priest — yet the receptions were done at fancy venues, even televised.
People with money feel that they pay the piper, they call the tune. But you know that, Boss, because that’s the way parts of the American Church is treating you.
Thank you, Boss, for not dancing to their tune.
Read past columns by Fr Chris Townsend