Students are seen at St. Paul Catholic School in Memphis, Tennesssee, on May 13, 2021. The school offered in-person learning all year long and only had one case of COVID-19. CNS photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

Ministry in the Midst of Pandemic

CARA assesses the fallout of the pandemic from initial responses by bishops and priests

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After the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed all of the bishops leading a diocese, as well as a random sample of priests across the country, asking them how dioceses and parishes were responding to the pastoral, educational and social needs of the Catholic community. Sixty percent of the bishops and more than 450 priests responded to the survey.

Both surveys focused on six areas in particular:

• COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on dioceses (for the bishops) and parishes (for the priests).

• Special pastoral provisions issued by dioceses.

• Financial concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Actions taken to address the financial health of the diocese or parish.

• The pandemic’s effect on parish assessments.

• Diocesan technological assistance of parishes and schools.

As will be seen, the findings indicate that bishops and priests believed that while dioceses and parishes were being greatly affected in the short run, most forecast that their institutions will survive the pandemic, diminished but still intact.

A complicating factor in the study, it should be noted, is that some dioceses, eparchies and parishes responded to the survey during the total lockdown phase of the pandemic in their area, while others responded at a later phase. Many dioceses on the coasts of the United States, for example, experienced the height of the pandemic crisis months earlier than dioceses in other parts of the country. In addition, at the time of the survey, there were still large questions about how long the pandemic would last, making bishops’ and priests’ forecasts of the future difficult.

Pandemic’s Influence

When asked how much the pandemic has affected their own morale, 60% of bishops report that their own morale has been affected, which is similar to the 62% of priests reporting the same about themselves. Priests are more likely to see their fellow priests as having been affected, however, as 80% report that the morale of the priests of their diocese has been affected at least “somewhat,” compared to 68% of bishops who say the same of the morale of their priests.

As is seen in Figure 1, at least 85% of bishops and priests say the provision of parish-based sacraments and rites and preparation for some of those sacraments have been “somewhat” or “very” affected. Generally, even if it is only a difference of a few percentage points, bishops are more likely to see them as more affected than priests. Those sacraments and rites most likely to be identified as “very” affected (not shown in the table) in their parishes by the priests are first Communions (80%), confirmations (73%), marriages (69%), baptisms (69%) and funerals (68%).


Special Provisions

Bishops were asked if they issued any special pastoral or practical provisions for their diocese as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and, if so, to briefly describe what they were. Some 106 bishops responded and CARA classified their responses into these four broad categories.

Directives Addressing the Celebration of Sacraments: A plurality of bishops reported that they have issued sets of directives and have granted dispensations of parishioners’ obligation for attending Sunday and holy day Masses during the pandemic. Included are guidelines for celebrating Masses with social distancing in place, celebrating liturgies safely and other practical measures for keeping people safe. Also, they provided updates as often as weekly regarding liturgies, finances, how to contribute to one’s parish, and how to reopen parishes for public Masses, sacraments and donations.

Directives to Suspend Public Masses: Responding bishops state they have granted a dispensation of all Catholics from their Sunday Mass obligations, as well as permission to temporarily close churches and schools. There are also instructions to guide priests on how to safely celebrate sacraments like the anointing of the sick.

Directives to Comply with State and Local Government Orders: Participating bishops say they issued letters informing their parishes to comply with state and local orders concerning the pandemic. Following the government guidelines, parishes were instructed to do such things as respect social distancing by celebrating Sunday Masses in open spaces like parking lots.

Other Directives and Communications: Some bishops mentioned other directives they have announced concerning matters such as sacramental preparation, as well as messages they sent to particular groups, including hospital workers and those with delayed celebrations of sacraments. Others say they had a system in place for regular communications to those affected.

Financial Concerns

Bishops and priests were asked to identify their biggest concern regarding the financial health of their dioceses and their parishes, schools and programs.

Bishops. Some 108 bishops responded and CARA grouped their responses into the following three broad categories.

  1. Parish and Parishioner Financial Issues: A plurality of bishops wrote about financial issues related to their dioceses’ parishes. Noteworthily, five wrote how financially healthy their parishes are despite the pandemic. Among those writing that their parishes are experiencing financial difficulties, the most common area of concern is the missed weekend collections due to not celebrating Masses publicly (or online only). Also noted are their parishioners’ financial health due to unemployment, a poor rural economy or a great deal of poverty among parishioners. Other difficulties encountered include paying the salaries and wages of the parish staff.
  2. Diocesan Financial Issues: The bishops also mentioned financial issues related to loss of investment income and their loss of revenue for the annual Catholic appeal. In addition, much of the dioceses’ funding comes from the parishes, which are also suffering financially during the pandemic. Since it is unpredictable how long churches will be shut down, the bishops’ comments concerned the uncertain future of diocesan programming and long-term budgetary consequences.
  3. Catholic School Financial Issues: Bishops also mentioned the financial health of the parish and diocesan schools, worrying that low future enrollments may reduce the financial solvency of schools. They also worry about the financial impact of the pandemic on families and their ability to afford the tuition for Catholic schools.

Priests. The responses of the priests about their largest financial concerns have been grouped by CARA into these four categories:

  1. Decreasing Revenue Streams: Priests were most concerned about declining donations from parishioners, declining Catholic school tuition receipts and their curtailed efforts at fundraising. Some worried more generally about their parish’s solvency in general and being able to survive the pandemic.
  2. Cost Cuts: Some of the priests said they either have or will have to lower their staff’s salaries and benefits or terminate/furlough them. Others were examining which programs to cut or reduce, including those ministering to the poor, and keeping their parish schools open.
  3. Parishioners’ Situations: Other priests identified the financial and religious engagement of their parishioners as their greatest concerns. Witnessing firsthand the growing unemployment and lower financial health of their parishioners, they also worried that the parish’s declining finances would affect its ability to support parishioners in need.
  4. Economy and Pandemic in General: Some priests wrote that their greatest concerns were how long the pandemic would last and the scope and length of the economic downturn. Relatedly, they worried how well their parishioners would be able to support the parish after the pandemic has receded.

Addressing Financial Health

Early on in the pandemic (July 2020), practically all bishops reported taking the following actions to address the financial health of the diocese: helping their parishes apply to federal or state assistance programs (95%) and encouraging parishioners to consider giving electronically to their parish collections (87%).

• About a quarter to a third of dioceses were currently deciding whether to eliminate one or more diocesan programs (34%), close one or more Catholic elementary schools (25%), and/or close one or more parishes (23%).

• Three- to six-tenths of responding bishops say their dioceses had considered doing the following, but decided against it: closing one or more Catholic high schools (58%), closing one or more parishes (52%), furloughing some diocesan staff (51%), laying off some diocesan staff (50%), closing one or more Catholic elementary schools (38%), eliminating one or more diocesan programs (30%).

• About one-fifth of the bishops say their dioceses have considered doing the following as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: closing one or more parishes (22%), eliminating one or more diocesan programs (21%), laying off some diocesan staff (18%), closing one or more Catholic elementary schools (18%), furloughing some diocesan staff (17%), closing one or more Catholic high schools (17%).

Effect on Parish Assessments

Bishops were asked if they waived or modified the assessments that parishes pay to the chancery. Some 111 responded, and CARA grouped them into two broad categories. As the pandemic has continued it is assumed that such decisions are a work in progress in most dioceses.

Have Modified the Assessments that Parishes Pay to the Diocese: A majority of bishops considered the financial crises that parishes are undergoing due to the pandemic and have waived assessments according to the needs of each parish. Mostly, bishops forgave the parish assessments and property liability insurance payments. In some cases, some parishes will be allowed to pay a certain percentage of their regular collections while others will delay their payments.

Have Not Waived the Assessments and/or Are in the Process of Deciding Whether to Do So: Some bishops say they either have not modified the assessments that parishes pay to the chancery or that they are still deciding how to proceed. Some find it too soon to step in (as of July 2020), instead preferring to observe closely what is happening month by month.

In the survey of priests, just over half reported that their diocese did waive or modify parish assessments. While some priests were strictly factual in their response, others appear to feel that their diocese was callous in demanding the assessments, and a few others gave reasons why their diocese needs to continue collecting funds and/or how their diocese is supportive of parishes’ financial situation despite collecting the assessments.

Technological Assistance

chartBishops were asked how involved their diocese was in helping to set up and operate the technology for online Masses in their parishes and distance learning in their Catholic schools.

About six in 10 bishops (62%) say their diocese was “very” involved in helping parishes set up online Masses, with another 22% saying their diocese was “somewhat” involved. That finding complements the finding on the priest survey where 31% say their diocese was “very” involved in helping parishes and schools set up online Masses and distance learning and an additional 26% say it was “somewhat” involved.

Four in five bishops (79%) say their diocese was “very” involved in helping the Catholic schools in their diocese set up distance learning, with another 12% saying their diocese was “somewhat” involved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged dioceses and parishes in almost every aspect of the Church’s life during the past year. With each passing month, bishops and pastors have creatively responded to the pastoral needs of parishioners and have learned new ways to serve.

Complete copies of the two surveys are available here.

FATHER THOMAS P. GAUNT, SJ, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. JONATHON L. WIGGINS, Ph.D., is a research associate at CARA who specializes in parishioner surveys.

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