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Church cash crisis as donations dwindle

By Cian Molloy - 23 February, 2019

The Diocese of Waterford and Lismore this week revealed that it did not have the funds available at the end of last year to pay the wages of diocesan priests.

Waterford and Lismore spokesperson Fr Liam Power told the WLR FM Déise Today programme that the diocese had no money at Christmas and had to take €5,000 from each parish out of parish funds.

“Long term, it’s not sustainable,” Fr Power said. “It’s seriously depleted, that fund. Each parish should be contributing enough to the common fund to support its own priests. If not, maybe they would have to contribute from the basket collection.”

How priests are paid varies from diocese to diocese. Increasingly their main source of income comes from a centrally held diocesan fund. In the Dublin Archdiocese, where there are two church plate collections at Sunday Masses, this central fund is topped up with money from the first church plate collection and from Easter and Christmas “dues”.

However, in many dioceses, including Waterford and Lismore, there is only one Sunday church plate collection. This is solely for meeting parish expenses such as heating and lighting.

The funds to pay for the income of priests comes from envelope collections, usually held at Easter, at Christmas and in September, with these funds being administered centrally by the local diocese.

What caused a crisis in the south-east this Christmas is that the amount of money raised by the envelope collection in September 2017 had fallen dramatically on the amount raised in previous years, so that there wasn’t enough to provide the 60 or so Waterford and Lismore diocesan priests with their usual income.

Diocesan administrators had to borrow from other diocesan funds to make up the shortfall, and they are now looking to see if they will have to turn to church plate collections to make up any future envelope collection deficits.

Following news of the problems in Waterford and Lismore, Fr Tom Ryan, parish priest of Ennis, told Clare FM that funding of priests salaries was becoming increasingly difficult.

Fr Ryan said that in Killaloe, the basic salary of a priest is to be increased from €22,000 to €24,000, which is believed to be are in line with the basic salary in most dioceses.

On top of this amount, priests get an additional 5–12 per cent, depending on length of service. They also gain additional income from Mass stipends and from offerings for officiating at wedding and funeral ceremonies. However, not all priests receive Mass stipends, and all priests are limited to one Mass stipend per day.

Fr Ryan said that priests never do without basic needs such as food; but he noted that most priests have incomes that are well below the average industrial wage of approximately €37,000 a year.

On the plus side, priests are provided with accommodation free of charge; but on the negative side, they do not have minimum working hours.

It should also be noted that the term “salary” is a misnomer as, for taxation purposes, all priests are registered as self-employed.

Cashel and Emly priest Fr Roy Donovan, who is on the administrative team of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), said he believes the figures quoted by Fr Ryan are in line with what priests around the country receive, but that amounts do vary. He said the Diocese of Limerick pays its priests better than most other dioceses.

“There is a problem with a continuing decline in the value of church collections,” Fr Donovan said. “Congregations numbers are declining and the value of donations are falling as a result.

“In many cases, while people are paying more for nearly everything else, the amount of money they donate hasn’t increased. In fact, there was a notable decrease in the value of church plate collections when we switched from the punt to the euro, because people who had been donating a fiver in the old money now were donating a five-euro note.

“We are trying to get more people to make envelope donations, but it is difficult. However, there is a big advantage to us. When a person asks me ‘How much should I donate?’ I tell them that if they donate a minimum of €250 in a year, we can get an extra 31 per cent under the Charitable Donation Scheme, if they are paying income tax. So I say, pay a minimum of €250 a year, which is €5 a week, and if you want, you can pay more than that!”

There are no centrally held statistics on church funding across the country, but Fr Donovan believes that the biggest decline in donations has been in urban areas, which would explain why Waterford and Lismore is struggling.

Fr Donovan said the ACP has heard complaints from some of its members about the way centralised funds for priests’ salaries are managed.

“In some dioceses, the allocation paid into the central fund by a parish is based on the number of Catholics living in a parish, but the number of Catholics in a parish isn’t always a fair reflection of the number of Catholics going to Mass or the amount of money that that minority of Catholics is donating to their parish church.”

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