As I write today, the coronavirus pandemic certainly remains on all of our minds. I am hopeful by the positive trends we have been seeing here in Massachusetts at least related to the virus, and I am encouraged by the advances being made in the effort to create a vaccine for COVID-19.
As you are aware, our parishes, schools, nursing homes, and ministries here in the Diocese have all been impacted by this pandemic. I’m grateful to our priests and parish workers, school administrators and teachers, all of those on staff at our health facilities and Catholic Social Services programs, along with those employed in other ministries and in diocesan departments for continuing to carry out the essential work of the Church during this pandemic. I am thankful as well to the faithful of our Diocese for their support to help make it all happen.
Without question, the financial impact of the pandemic has been substantial and will be long-lasting. Our parish collections are down more than 30% on the whole from last year, and parishes are now incurring extra expenses on cleaning and sanitation services and supplies.
Like millions of entities across the country, profit and non-profit alike, the Fall River Diocese sought to participate in government assistance programs, primarily from the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP. There have been stories in the media about the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s participation in such programs, including a recent one by the Associated Press that seemed intent on casting it in a negative light. I want to address at least some of the points made in this article and introduce some additional facts for your consideration:
- The PPP was designed to help employers continue to pay their employees when the economy practically shut down from the pandemic. All religious institutions were permitted to participate, and we did. The purpose of the PPP was to keep workers from all sectors employed. It did not designate some jobs, like that of a parish secretary, Catholic school teacher, or homeless shelter worker, as unworthy of protection.
- It is important to know that the PPP fulfilled its purpose: allowing businesses and organizations – including churches [Catholic and non-Catholic], synagogues, and mosques- to maintain their employees on the payroll, thus helping hundreds of thousands of families to pay their bills and have food on their tables. In our Diocese alone, PPP helped pay over 3.000 employees across our many entities. No funds were “amassed,” as the AP story says.
- Please consider too that keeping our employees on the job meant keeping much-needed ministries and services functioning during the coronavirus pandemic. Staff at our parishes, schools, shelters, food pantries and other diocesan institutions remained on their jobs and, in doing so, provided both spiritual and temporal services during this unprecedented public health crisis.
- The AP story correctly points out those religious institutions sought an exemption from the rule that companies with more than 500 employees are exempt from the federal Paycheck Protection Program funds. Each staff person at every parish and school is technically an employee of the Diocese of Fall River in its classification as a Corporation Sole. As such, the Diocese would have exceeded the 500-employee threshold, making every parish and school ineligible for PPP funds. However, no individual parish or school employs anywhere near 500 people. Our parishes and schools are certainly affiliated, but they are financially independent. For example, payroll at each parish is paid out of collections at each parish or paid out from tuition and other sources at schools. The AP article describes this exemption as “preferential treatment,” however not allowing this exemption would have had a vastly negative impact on our parishes and schools precisely because of the way we are structured.
- The article makes only slight reference to churches being closed for a period of time and revenues being severely strained by the pandemic. The fact is, as I’ve noted, parish finances have been strained, and we expect collections to be down for quite some time. We are also making unprecedented investments in Personal Protective Equipment or PPE and new technology to make our churches and schools safe and, at the same time, equipped to serve remotely for those still not comfortable enough to attend or participate in person.
I assure you that we applied for these available pandemic relief funds out of a genuine need to support our employees and our communities.
Returning to the Sacraments
Gratefully, many Confirmations, previously postponed by the pandemic, have been rescheduled. While the ceremony may look very different from years past, the Sacrament remains the same. One of the significant changes comes in the number of Confirmation sessions necessary to accommodate the Confirmation candidates and still maintain social distancing protocols.
When possible, the Confirmation is celebrated by myself; however, in some instances, I have needed to delegate the Pastor. In next week’s blog, I will share the six words which I see best describes their unique experience with the Sacrament of Confirmation. One thing each one of these young people can be assured, they will never forget their Confirmation.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we look forward, let us also take a moment to reflect on how far we have come. While no one can be certain when this current trial will pass, we should take comfort and draw hope, from what we have been able to endure and, more importantly, accomplish during this difficult time. St. Paul might refer to our current circumstance, “a momentary, light affliction,” part of the building of our faith and perseverance, which is “producing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:13-18). Remain encouraged and hopeful, and please know of my continued prayers.
Sincerely Yours in Christ
Bishop da Cunha