While dioceses across the country have canceled public Masses in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus, many parishes are remaining open for prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and confession, and continuing charitable work in the community.
But some parishes, especially those serving poor communities, have already begun feeling a financial pinch as they lose access to in-person parish collections.
For Father Joseph Lajoie, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver, dwindling cash flow during the coronavirus crisis constitutes a “potentially crippling, if not mortal, blow” to the parish.
"We are as antiquated as our registration system. It's a three-ring binder," Lajoie told CNA.
The Archdiocese of Denver suspended public Masses March 13.
"So we're looking at this past Sunday, and the next three at least, with no Mass, no collection at all," Lajoie said.
Sacred Heart is one of the oldest parishes in the archdiocese, occupying a 140-year-old building. It is also one of the poorest, and its congregation is largely elderly and low-income.
The parish has no online giving portal, no electronic database of registered parishioners, and no way to communicate with the entire community electronically, except through social media.
Lajoie said that in recent days he’s been able to lead Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament from a balcony of the church for those in the community who are able to come outside.
Though many parishes keep reserves on hand— and Lajoie stressed that Sacred Heart does have some savings— the prospect of months without passing the basket has Lajoie worried about being able to pay his small staff, especially after the few weeks.
Nearly 100 dioceses in the United States have canceled public liturgies until further notice.
"I think a lot of the things in our country, and in our Church, are going to look very different when we're allowed to have public Mass again," Lajoie said.
Small and large parishes affected
The financial implications of canceling Mass are not just affecting small parishes, either.
Father Ronald Cattany, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver, said over the first weekend after Masses were suspended, in-person donations at the cathedral were down about 75% from a typical weekend. What did come came from those going to confession at the cathedral, or stopping to pray.
Online giving for that weekend totaled about $800, he said, but Cattany stressed that the cathedral basilica is not funded like most other parishes in Denver.
Despite its large size, Cattany said the parish has only about 600 registered parishioners, many of whom are elderly or low-income. A large portion of each Sunday’s congregation is made up of visitors, or what Cattany calls “Friends of the Cathedral” who attend on Sunday, but do not live in the area and are registered at other parishes.
For some other large parishes in the Denver area, the number of registered parishioners could range anywhere from 2,500 to over 6,000.
At the cathedral, "the populations here are very different," Cattany said.
The cathedral has remained open for Eucharistic adoration. The confession schedule will— for now— remain the same, Father Cattany said.
The priest said the cathedral canceled its entire order of palms for Palm Sunday, and he fears that the palm supplier may go out of business. Still, he has been seeking to reassure parishioners that Jesus will be waiting for them in Eucharist when the pandemic ends.
“Despite the lack of liturgy, He’s still there, and he wants to see them,” Cattany said.
“The Blessed Mother’s helped us before, and she’s going to get us through this.”
The cathedral’s breakfast sandwich line for the homeless and the food pantry will continue to operate for the time being, he said. But the local chapter of St. Vincent DePaul, which typically provides about $5,000 worth of support per month to families in need, is “out of money.”
Catholics will likely help parishes first
Mario Enzler, program director for the Online Masters of Science in Ecclesial Administration and Management at the Catholic University of America, told CNA he recommends to priests that a parish keep on hand enough money for at least one month of operations.
He said parish priests— many of whom are former students in his program— have been calling him asking for advice during the coronavirus crisis.
"Yes, cash flow will suffer...but as I told several priests, you'll be blown away by how your parishioners will become a force for unity," Enzler said.
He said he also recently spoke to a diocesan vicar general, who is concerned about the diocesan annual appeal. That's different, he said.
"Parishioners will, first and foremost, identify themselves as a member of a specific parish, rather than of a diocese," Enzler said.
"So people will help the pastor before they think, I have to also help the bishop and the chancery and so on and so forth."
Enzler said he has been telling priests who have been reaching out to him asking for advice on how to communicate with parishioners simply not to go into "panic mode."
Talking to the priests who have contacted him, he said, "I did not sense a panic. There is a concern, they are aware of the financial repercussions, but at the same time with good crisis management skills, with good communication skills, with good use of digital platforms, they're not going to be penalized."
Reserves can help
Parishes in many dioceses have the option of depositing funds with the diocese as a kind of savings account.
Father Ryan Hilderbrand, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg, Indiana, told CNA that in the Diocese of Evansville, parishes sends excess money to a reserve fund managed by diocese which functions like a bank for parishes; he told CNA deposits can be withdrawn at any time for any reason.
Hilderbrand said this method of saving keeps the parish’s cash safe from market fluctuations.
“Generally speaking, if I ask the diocese for cash out of our savings, I will have a check in-hand within 48 hours,” he said.
Hilderbrand said his savings at diocese, along with endowments from parishioners has allowed the parish to build up a reserve fund. The priest estimates he could pay for parish staff and upkeep of the parish for six months, even if all income dried up.
‘My parish has been blessed with great financial stability in the past. We have not had to use those proceeds [from the endowments] for many years,” he said.
“Thus, those proceeds have been building up over the years. If we need to tap into them, we can.”
Enzler said many priests throughout the country will have to make a similar calculation, and many people will likely have to share resources to keep parishes afloat during the coronavirus crisis.
He recommended that parishes especially well-prepared for a crisis ought to call up struggling parishes and offer to share resources. Dioceses, too, ought to do the same for fellow dioceses, he said.
“If a pastor knows that a neighboring parish is suffering, and he has an abundance of assets or goods, yes, he should share them with common sense. Because the goods of the parish belong to the people of God,” he said.
Ultimately, Enzler said, if parishes don't have access to an emergency fund, it's simply time to turn the heat in the church down to 50— something Father Lajoie said he plans to do as soon as he can.
"If we have to all sacrifice, this is what we as Catholics are called to," Enzler said.
"This is an amazing opportunity for all of us to come together and help one another and love one another, and to not leave our priests alone."