Thursday, September 1, 2016

Overheard at the Barbershop: Is the Catholic Church Getting Rich Off of Your Wedding?

About a year ago, I was sitting in a barber shop dressed in regular clothes and was eavesdropping on a conversation between a barber and his client. They were discussing the client's upcoming wedding.  They were discussing the cost of the reception and the honeymoon etc.  At one point, the conversation turned to how much the church was charging for the wedding. The barber thought it was awful that the church had "charged" him $500 for his wedding. The other fellow said that he was paying a similar charge. They thought it unsavory for the church to charge that kind of money.  (They did not complain about the cost of the entertainment, flowers, reception venue, or honeymoon flights and accommodations.)

Early on in my priesthood, I recognized that there is an inverse proportion between the amount one gives to the Church (in terms of time and treasure) and the amount that one expects from the Church. The people who are the most generous in terms of their time and monetary gifts are often the people who expect the least in terms of special treatment.  On the other hand, folks who rarely attend church or who give little in terms of time and treasure, often expect the most. So often, their expectations are based on the fact that, "My grandmother sang in the choir here all her life." But people who are truly involved in the life of their parish have a sensitivity to understanding that somebody has to pay to keep the lights on, the sidewalks shoveled, the roof from leaking, and the pipes from freezing. The more involved someone is in their parish, the more they feel responsible for it.

As a chaplain at university, most of my weddings take place in the university's inter-denominational chapel.  The other day, a couple emailed me to ask when they should pay my $500 fee.  (On the chapel website, in addition to the other fees, it mentions that the fee for the minister for a wedding is $500).  Fees such as this are not uncommon in many churches. Like every person who works, a minister needs to earn a wage.  Similarly, the person who plays music for a church needs to earn a wage. This is why churches "charge" money. The building, the personnel, the infrastructure that exists in order for someone to have their wedding at this church all costs money. It is reasonable to expect that people who are paying a limo driver, a wedding coordinator, airline tickets, a florist, a band, a reception venue etc, also contribute something towards the expense of running a church.  

Although most churches charge a fee for the person officiating at the ceremony, the Catholic Church does not. Priests do not charge for the sacraments. In fact, priests are prohibited from charging for the sacraments. When a fee is charged at a Catholic Church, none of that money actually goes to the priest. I think some people have the misperception that it does. That money goes to the church itself. (And, if a couple were unable to afford that fee, it would be easily waved). So, the couple who recently emailed me about the $500 fee must have been pleasantly surprised when they learned that there is no such fee! Instead, I told them that they are free to make some donation to the Catholic Center.

Many couples choose to give the priest a gift when he has officiated at their wedding.  What does the priest do with that money? Firstly, I should say that the priest is not getting rich from an occasional hundred dollars from a grateful wedding couple or from some other parishioner! I think that most priests use those gifts to pay it forward. We use them to support seminarians, to donate to particular charitable causes that we might not be able to support otherwise, or to help people that we know who are in need.  I know of one priest who would use any gifts that he received to help pay tuition for some children from a family who had fallen on difficult times.  

I have celebrated many weddings in my priesthood, but one of the most beautiful was a young couple who had very little money. They came to Mass every Sunday together, tithed from the little money that they had, and were just amazing parishioners.  When it came time for them to get married, they wanted a full Mass, but they wanted it to be simple. They invited only a handful of guests and there were no frills, expensive dresses, or limos. Their reception was at a local restaurant and maybe had twenty people at it. Since they were so active in the parish and they had very little to begin with, I told them not to pay the fee for the church, but a few days after the wedding, they dropped off the church fee. They said that they had been given some generous wedding gifts and felt that now that they could afford the fee, they wanted to pay it. Their simplicity and their generosity still moves me many years later.

Why do I mention all of this? It is easy sometimes for Catholics to feel obliged to indulge in self-hatred and to go along with the myth that a parish that charges $500 or $800 is really ripping people off, and the priests are getting wealthy from it.  It's an easy and entertaining myth to promote. Instead, isn't it reasonable to ask whether those who benefit from a particular church should feel any obligation to help pay for the custodian, the heat, the music, the electricity etc?  But, of course, the real key to eliminating such barber shop conversations is to find ways to get people more involved in the life of their parishes. Because the inverse proportion rule is definitely the case. The more someone is involved in the life of their parish, the less entitled they feel to special privileges. 

Oftentimes, when I walk into a beautiful church, I pray for the people whose generosity in time and resources built it. They gave not from external pressure, but from interior love and generosity. The more our hearts are shaped by the Kingdom of God, the more we feel compelled to be generous in supporting and expanding the Kingdom. Fees in church do stink. I wish that every Catholic were so generous that fees would disappear, but most parishes struggle to pay their bills. That's because things are expensive. After all, a haircut at that barbershop costs $18 plus tip.

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Barnes, I found this essay about money very moving. You're right, of course. I hope you relayed your thoughts to the hair cutter and his cuttee.