Church collections in dioceses and parishes have long been the butt of good-natured humor and jokes among the Catholic clergy and faithful. I don’t know too many bishops or priests who actually enjoy asking parishioners for their hard-earned money. The generosity of the faithful – and the clergy as well – however, has been and remains a principal source of support for dioceses and parishes and an investment in their ministries, activities and abilities to reach out to those in need. That has been true throughout the history of the Catholic Church since the very beginning.
What is the “bottom line?” God the Father has always been generous with the people he created: generous with his grace, his love, his word, his wisdom, his guidance, his gifts and his blessings. He demonstrated his ultimate generosity in giving his only begotten Son to walk among us, to redeem and save us by his death on the Cross and Resurrection, to send his Holy Spirit to inspire our lives of faith and to lead us back to him for eternity.
The Sacred Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments are filled with stories and accounts of God’s never-failing generosity and his call to us to be generous with one another as a way of expressing our gratitude to God for all he has done and given us.
Consider the earliest Christian communities. We read about them in the Acts of the Apostles, where the sacred author wrote about the first Christians “selling their property and possessions, sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:45). He continued, “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).
It would not be an exaggeration to say that “giving” and “generosity” are part of the DNA of the Christian, in imitation of the Creator.
In the First Letter of John we read:
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, St. Paul wrote:
“Now in regard to the collection for the holy ones, you also should do as I ordered the churches of Galatia. On the first day of the week each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford, so that collections will not be going on when I come. And when I arrive, I shall send those whom you have approved with letters of recommendation to take your gracious gift to Jerusalem. If it seems fitting that I should go also, they will go with me (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).
In his Second Letter to the same community, St. Paul urged:
“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart what to give, not reluctantly of under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:7-8).
Yes, God is generous and so calls us to be, as well. “To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).”
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Where are our hearts? “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16).
As the Church and its ministries grew and spread, so did its needs, and the realization that the Lord Jesus Christ:
“… gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the extent of the full stature of Christ so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
More than 2000 years since those words of Sacred Scripture were first written, the holy, Catholic and apostolic Church has become universal – true to its name – “a whole body” in “every corner of the world,” composed of dioceses composed, in turn, of parishes, missions and organizations established to preach the Gospel and to serve the spiritual and practical human needs of the Church on every one of those levels, “building up the body of Christ … in love.”
The Catholic Church is, in essence, a world-wide community of faith, worship and laws “held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part.” To assure, ensure and strengthen its integrity and stability – the “proper functioning of each part” – the Church needs the support of all its members. To that end, although not a frequent part of contemporary Church conversation but still binding, the Church maintains a series of “Precepts” (among the “laws” noted earlier) dating back to the Middles Ages, the fifth one of which commands the members of the Church to “help provide for the needs of the Church.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that this “fifth precept” means “that the faithful are obliged (have the duty) to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to their own ability (CCC, 2043).”
With all of this background in mind, we return to a consideration of collections in Catholic Churches, especially “on the first day of the week” that St. Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16 cited earlier.
In fulfillment of the “Fifth Precept of the Church” which addresses the “material needs of the Church,” parishes in dioceses of the United States take up one, sometimes two collections at weekend Masses. The manner of conducting these collections may differ from parish to parish.
The practice of preparing and distributing “envelopes” to registered parishioners identifying the particular need for or use of the proceeds from weekend collections has become commonplace. Collections may be “taken up” by ushers “passing the basket” or plate to those attending Mass or, in other instances – as was the practice begun during the pandemic – parishioners deposited their envelope or other method of donation in an identifiable collection box located in the church. In more recent years, electronic or online contributions have replaced physical collections and that practice seems to be catching on.
In each parish, processes and protocols of accountability have been developed, through policies established by the central diocesan finance office, to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the collection which is recorded and deposited as soon as possible in an identified parish bank account. Parishes are expected to make regular public reports to their parishioners and the diocese regarding the amounts collected and their uses. Obviously, whenever money changes hands, honesty and protection from fraud or misuse are paramount.
The internal controls established for and followed by the Diocese of Trenton can be found on our diocesan website.
In addition to weekly collections taken up for parish needs, a diocese may authorize a special “second collection” to be conducted for a specific designated purpose. These purposes might include collections for a diocesan need or for disaster relief or other emergency situations in locations within or outside the diocese requiring extraordinary or more immediate assistance.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated 15 “national second collections” throughout the year for Church needs beyond those of the diocese or parish. Since these have been agreed upon by the bishops of the entire country and scheduled annually on weekends in advance, special envelopes are often prepared and distributed in the parish ahead of time identifying the recipients. These collections are conducted for: the Church in Latin America, the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, Catholic Relief Services, Peter’s Pence (for the Holy Father), Catholic Home Mission Appeal, Catholic Communication, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Retirement Fund for Religious, Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa, Black and Indian Missions, Good Friday Collection for the Holy Land, the Catholic University of America, Rice Bowl, World Mission Sunday, and Collection for the Military Archdiocese of the USA.
The full list of and details regarding these USCCB “national second collections” can be found on the USCCB webpage at www.usccb.org. The USCCB acknowledges and reports the proceeds of these collections to each participating diocese and the diocese, in turn, publishes that report.
Finally, the Diocese of Trenton conducts an annual appeal – the Annual Catholic Appeal or ACA – to support diocesan ministries that have no other means of supporting themselves. Individual donors are recorded on a database and acknowledged by the Diocesan Development Office.
I offer this history and explanation to aid in the understanding of a regular and important experience in Church life. If you can give, give. If you cannot, pray. For those who are unresponsive to these important appeals, I pray that this piece may help you to recognize the responsibility we all have to support the work of the Church."