Is the Church poor?

Speaking of the Archdiocese of Bombay, my late friend and mentor. Fr Larry Pereira once said, “There are no poor Churches.”  This statement needs context. Larry, as I called him since my youth, was an expert in his own right in ‘local’ Church History and even more had the power of observation and a memory to match it. His interventions at clergy meetings were insightful, based on reality and peppered with humour. If Larry stood up to speak at a clergy meeting, the house listened and often erupted into what many might consider an ‘unclergy-like chuckle,’ for his tongue-in-cheek comments. He spoke truth to power and truth to his companions, as he did with me.

Larry did not make this statement lightly. Having served as Youth Director for the Archdiocese of Bombay, he opted to work in the missions. He spent the next eight-odd years in Kalamboli which back then was just being urbanized. He took the state transport bus and never owned even a motorbike much less a four-wheeler. He did however come from a very affluent family and we would often ask him in jest to share a ‘thin slice’ of his property with us. From this context, he said, “There are no poor Churches in the Archdiocese of Bombay.”

Larry did not for a minute discount poverty or the fact that many Catholics in the Archdiocese of Bombay struggle to eke out a living. In effect, what he did by often making this statement, was to challenge the Church to be more Christ-like in its giving.

Several years ago, the former finance minister of India, P. Chidambaram added several clauses to the functioning of charitable trusts. One of them demanded that charitable trusts spend 85 per cent of their annual income within the financial year.  At a meeting with the clergy, the Archbishop of Bombay agreed wholeheartedly with the principle. He said, that by its nature, charitable trusts were created to assist in charity and not hoard cash deposits in the bank. If money is collected in the name of charity, then why is it not spent? And if we make a case for ‘saving for a rainy day’ then we throw the providence of God out of the window!

As former priest-in-charge of a small community of believers at St Jude Church, Malad East, I found myself ‘shepherding’ a congregation of 800 souls. A majority of these wonderful people were financially challenged and a Sunday collection never exceeded Rs 3000/- a week; two of which were sent to the Bishop’s House.

On making a representation for the needy in my parish to the archdiocese, its then financial administrator and also the present administrator (then an assistant) with the consent of the Archbishop, stepped up to the plate providing educational, medical and pastoral assistance on a project basis. Accountability was crucial to this process and only a scrutinized utilization certificate would see the next project passed. Anyone who chooses to ask on behalf of the poor will receive but must be ready for accountability. Checks and balances must be in place.

The Archdiocese of Bombay under the brilliant mind of Bishop Percival Fernadez (who baptized me, gave me my first communion and then inducted me as priest-in-charge) created a corpus fund to help Catholics in the Archdiocese of Bombay when in need of medical assistance. He did not want to see a catholic running helter-skelter when strapped for funds in medical emergencies.

He sent in place a simple but effective procedure to help the needy. The parish priest was to render immediate assistance from the community welfare fund. Half that amount would be reimbursed to the parish by the archdiocese. If the need arose and more financial assistance was required, the parish priest had but to write (with supporting documents) to the archdiocese. I can tell you that when I appealed for help in three such cases, the archdiocese sanctioned rupees five lakhs each.

Having said that, this corpus must grow as the interest of the corpus has to be scattered over a year. Bishop Percy does not need a reward. He who humbly washes his car and drives himself and long ran a premier Medical School has seen and understood pain and poverty. He saw and acted and to quote to him his often-said words to others, “God bless you!”

St Jude’s did not have much financially. It did however have generous souls. To meet the weekly quota of food grains for the needy, parishioners, many of whom themselves struggled, would wrap up the last hundred odd grams of grain, sugar, flour or rice in their kitchen and drop it in a box at the start of the mass for someone less fortunate. Offertory, at St Jude’s, began before the mass.

Poverty must not and should not be glorified. It needs to be addressed intellectually and pastorally in every parish. A Bishop once said to me that he sensed that some of his priests were not generous in caring for the poor and needy during the COVID period. Many middle-class Catholics slipped silently into poverty during this time. Here is my contention and perhaps a rather controversial one for some. If a bishop is forced to act against a priest for sexual misconduct or failure to perform sacramental duties, should he not act swiftly when the scandal of poverty is not addressed in a parish?

I am sure some will argue, “Have you not heard of the pride of the poor?” Ahh, but then the rich have no pride? Is it? Poverty cannot be condoned and Churches must respond and must do more to bring dignity to the lives of members of their congregation. If we are still debating on how many packets of food we need to give to a family and have not deliberated on how to educate their children or give them a home with dignity, then our pastoral care is lopsided. Even ‘The Master’ gave more than crumbs from his table!

There are many, who reading this article will begin with their ‘what aboutery’ or even more deliberating on issues such as, “is this the forum to address such matters? I have raised these and other issues at general and private forums. I often feel I am barking up at any tree much less the wrong one.

These articles are written to stimulate thought and growth within the Church. If we cannot be open to listening to viewpoints and want to hush every issue under the carpet then we are truly a POOR church and that poverty is the worst.

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