August 29, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Parishes helping parishes eliminate debt is a sign of unity, solidarity

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinLast week, I wrote about our need to develop a global vision. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis is part of the universal Church, and called to express that reality in meaningful solidarity with sister Churches in other parts of the world. However, we experience the Church most immediately in local communities of faith, usually parishes that are united under the ministry of a bishop and form a diocese or particular Church.

The archdiocese is not an archipelago of parishes, each living in splendid isolation from the others. Rather, it is a network of communities and the bonds among them should translate into effective solidarity.

There are factors that contribute to the well-being of parishes; others pose a serious threat to the present ministry and future prospects of these communities.

One element that can weigh heavily on a parish is debt. Here in central and southern Indiana, we have parishes that are debt free. We also have parishes that carry a relatively modest amount of debt—usually resulting from the construction of new facilities or the renovation of existing buildings. But I think most people in our archdiocese would be amazed—as I was when I first arrived here—to discover how many of our parish communities find themselves saddled with serious, debilitating debt. What’s more, I think most would be surprised—as I was—to learn that it is not just parishes in urban or rural areas who suffer from the burden of an enormous debt.

Burdensome debt makes it difficult for parishes to engage in the kinds of ministries that are urgently needed today in all regions of our archdiocese. When a parish community is struggling to meet the interest on its debt (let alone make payments on principal), it becomes nearly impossible to carry out its mission fully and effectively.

Frankly, it is amazing that so many of our debt-ridden parishes do as well as they do—as a result of generous parishioners and dedicated pastors and co-workers. But this is not a situation that can continue indefinitely if we are to serve the growing spiritual, sacramental and social needs of our people and carry the Gospel to so many who do not know Jesus Christ.

Parishes carry debt for a variety of reasons. It may result from loans it assumed for new construction or necessary renovations. Debt may also be the fruit of an underdeveloped sense of stewardship among the parishioners, who do not accept a meaningful role in sustaining the mission of their community. Bad management on the part of pastoral leadership or a lack of oversight by the central offices of the archdiocese may increase or prolong the parish’s debt.

Two categories of parishes have me especially concerned. First, there are urban communities that boast a number of buildings. These plants were constructed by parishoners years ago and, for the most part, have been well maintained. However, the present parish community may be smaller and less affluent than the generation that “built the parish.” As a result, these parishes struggle beneath the burgeoning weight of maintenance, taxes, insurance premiums and other assessments.

The other category includes parishes that have been established in recent years. These communities must construct facilities to meet the needs of their growing membership. As a result, these parishes assume a heavy debt in the first years of their existence and must divert a significant portion of their income toward servicing the debt.

As I have traveled throughout central and southern Indiana and met with pastoral leaders and parishioners in every region of our archdiocese, I asked myself whether anything might be done about this serious problem.

Certainly, the archdiocese must promote credible and effective stewardship that translates into a sense of co-responsibility among Catholics for the present ministry and future prospects of their own community. For my part, I will ask for greater accountability from pastoral leaders for the financial management of their parishes. I will also ensure that the central offices of the archdiocese provide the necessary support and oversight for the fiscal life of our parish communities. Should we do more?

Perhaps the biblical image of “jubilee” is something we might consider. The Book of Leviticus (Lv 25:1-55) describes the jubilee as a time to let the land reset and allow whatever it naturally produced to be shared by all, landowner and slave alike. It was a time to set slaves free, and to return to its original owner any land that had been sold or held as collateral for a loan. The jubilee was also a time to cancel debts. “At the end of every seven-year period, you shall have a relaxation of debts” (Dt 15:1–2). Is this one of the places where the Holy Spirit is calling us to open a new door?

As we engage in pastoral planning in the months ahead, I will be asking the question, “What can we—all of us—do to help parishes that are burdened by debt? How can we work together as parishes helping parishes in one unified local Church, to ensure that the mission of Christ is carried out in the diverse communities of central and southern Indiana?”

Last week, I urged that we “think globally, but act locally.” Parishes helping parishes would be a good way to express our unity and solidarity as one family of faith. †

Local site Links: