Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Study: The Pandemic and Parish Collections

 When JD Flynn, editor-in-chief of the The Pillar, told me that he'd like to have me do some data journalism for the Catholic news startup, my first struggle was with how one even does data journalism about the Catholic Church.  I very much enjoy working with data in my day job doing pricing analytics, but deciding how to price products is very different from understanding the eternal truths.  And yet, as we discussed possible topics, one jumped out at me as really interesting to try my hand at right away: assessing the effect which the pandemic has had on offertory collections at Catholic parishes.

Part of the appeal was that offertory sits at an interesting crossroad: it's a financial subject which one can analyze numerically, and yet it's also closely related to the mission of the parish since tithing is needed to support staff, upkeep of buildings, charity, programs, etc.  Additionally, this was something about which there was no existing data, and yet there was an obvious source: many parishes publish their weekly collections in their bulletin, and many parishes also publish their bulletins online.  In order to measure the effect of the pandemic on parish finances, all I had to do was use online bulletins to collect the weekly offertory data from a reasonable sample of parishes.

Because round numbers are easy, I decided I would conduct a study of 10 parishes each on 10 dioceses.  This makes for a total of 100 parishes, and given that I was looking at collections each week of 2019 and 2020, a total of 10,400 data points.  

The Pillar agreed to pay me for the work, so I was able to farm some of the work out to MrsDarwin and to the older kids and other members of the parish youth group, and we got all 10,000+ data points collected in under three weeks.  

The findings are interesting, and you can read about them over at The Pillar, but to use the biggest headlines for links: The average parish was down in collections by $70k or 12% in 2020 versus 2019How severely a parish's area was hit with COVID had no correlation to the change in their collections, but the level of unemployment did, as did some other surprising factors.  

I hope you'll find these interesting to read, and I'd strongly recommend The Pillar to you if you don't already subscribe.  They do outstanding in-depth journalism on Catholic topics.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Darwin and I decided to step up our Lenten fasting, both as a discipline and a spiritual practice. The spiritual practice definitely has a physical component -- the fasting itself is the prayer, and one recalls that the chief thing recorded about Jesus's fast was that he was hungry. The hunger is not exciting, not a drive, not at all the sort of thing that motivational speakers mean when they use "hunger" as a synonym for passion and drive. This hunger is intensely, consumingly boring  for a time, Then it fades away. You have to wait out the boredom and the gnawing and remember that this too shall pass.

"Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting," Jesus advises the disciples, when they were unable to cast out a demon in his name. So it's a strong offensive tool, to be implemented before you know you need it. But sometimes you wonder what you're fasting for.

And then on Sunday, our pastor, who had been mysteriously AWOL for several weeks, turned up at most of the masses to announce that he was resigning, effective tomorrow, after consultation with the bishop, and that he wanted to assure us didn't do anything criminal.

This is, believe it or not, the third priest in a row who has vanished on our parish. One was yanked after being pastor for about three weeks (if memory serves) because he was angry at the bishop and tried to blow up our parish in revenge for his assignment. (And let me assure you that a motivated priest with no concern for his reputation can do a remarkable amount of damage in three weeks.) His eventual replacement lasted much longer and seemed a better fit, but disappeared on us too -- into rehab, as it turned out. With this latest, his replacement, we seemed to be finding our footing. He seemed like a kind, pastoral man. We each are attuned to our own particular red flags, and he did not send up any of mine.

Father's announcement was mostly bland, simply a tone of moving on, so that a few people jumped up and offered applause. But I had to attend more than one mass that weekend, and the tone was very different when Father was not managing his own message. Confusion, dismay, sorrow -- all the things you'd expect when your father leaves without saying why. We are blessed to have an assistant pastor, so we are not left priestless. But we have been abandoned, again, and it is painful.

And now we know why we fast.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: The Seven Last Words (Sixth Word)

 Erin writes on "Into your hands I commend my spirit."


"In Christ's Name, let us begin. For Christ has finished."

To start here with Benson's closing line may seem like cutting corners, but it sums up his theme admirably. The old things are passing away -- which implies that there must be new things. But Christ does not suffer infinitely, because sin is not infinite. There is an end to sin. There is an end to suffering. And on the cross he has conquered both. And his victory is so complete and irreversible -- so finished! -- that he has the power to utter a humanly impossible cry of victory. He is not defeated by death. As the next and last word declares, he hands over his spirit willingly, because he is finished.

For it is a greater act to restore than to create, to bring the disobedient will back to obedience that to will it into existence, to reconcile enemies than to create worshippers, to redeem than to make. That God should man is an act of power; but to redeem him is an act of Love....

"It is a greater act to restore than to create": in our limited human capacity, we know this to be true. Homes, furniture, clothing, artwork, manuscripts, landscapes, governments, relationships: it is so much easier and less painful, so much less work -- and often, so much less expensive -- to tear down the old or simply walk away from it, and begin afresh with unscarred material. 

That is not what Christ does. He crafts all sin, suffering, joy, and work before him into an arc that bends toward him. The entire mess of history is the back of the tapestry, and the front is his victorious Passion, Death, and Resurrection. No human life or act of nature is pointless or fruitless any longer, and friendship with God is restored -- not just to the way it was in Eden, but a true mutual friendship, because now God has suffered too.

But what does it mean to hear our friend say that "It is finished"?

Friendship is, of course, Benson's theme, and his concluding passage of this section is one of the finest in the book, and for those not reading along at home, I'm going to quote the whole thing.

Christ’s work, then, is “finished” on the Cross—finished, that is, not as closed and concluded, but, as it were, liberated from the agonizing process which has brought it into being—finished, as bread is finished from the mills and the fire, that it may be eaten; as wine is finished after the stress and trampling of the winepress—finished, as a man’s body is finished in the womb of his mother and brought forth with travail.

It is finished, that is, for a new and glorious Beginning, that the stream which has flowed from His Wounds may begin to flood the souls of men, and the Flesh that has been broken, feed them indeed. For now the Passion of Christ begins to be wrought out in His Mystical Body, and she to “fill up those things that are wanting of the Sufferings of Christ.” Now the enormous Process that has crushed and mangled Him in His assumed Nature begins effectively to carry on that same work of Redemption in the Human Nature of His Church, which, mystically, is the Body in which He dwells always—One Sun sets in order that another sun, which is yet the same, may begin to run his course. “The evening and the morning are one day.”

And yet, we His friends—we, who in virtue of His Friendship are enabled to live, to die and to rise in union with him—live for the most part as if He had never died. Compare the life of a cultivated fastidious pagan with the life of a cultivated fastidious Christian. Draw the two from corresponding classes and set them side by side. Is there so enormous a difference? There are a few differences in the religious emblems of the two. The one has an Apollo; the other a Crucifix. The one has the Egyptian goddess with her son in her arms; the other has the Immaculate Mother of Jesus with her Holy Child. Their talk is different, their dresses, their houses—all those external matters that are wholly indifferent to the soul’s life. But are their virtues so different, their outlook on eternity, their sorrow beside open graves, their hopes beside new cradles? . . . Even before Christ died, children loved their parents and parents their children. Do Christians rise so much higher now—nearer to that yet more amazing degree of love by which a man “hates his father and mother” in order to be the disciple of His Lord? Even before Christ died, chastity was a virtue. Are we so far advanced now in that purity of heart without which no man can see God? Even a Roman Emperor once preached self-control, and practised it. Are our own houses any better models of the peace of brethren who dwell together in unity?

Did Christ finish His work, merely in order that society might decay no further? . . . God help us! As we look at what is called Christian Society to-day, it seems as if Christ had not even yet begun.

Yet here is this vast river of grace pouring from Calvary, the river that ought to be making glad the City of God. Here is this enormous reservoir of grace, bubbling up in every sacrament, soaking the ground beneath our feet, freshening the air we breathe. And we still in our hateful false humility talk as if Perfection were a dream, and Sanctity the privilege of those who see God in glory.

In Christ’s Name, let us begin. For Christ has finished.

Our friendship with him is now begun, and it means we are to be like him -- that is, different from the world around us. Does the Church today look different than the world around us? Does it speak the same words he does from the cross? Does it act as if it believes that Christ, on the cross, pours out sufficient grace to help sinners repent, let alone become holy? Do we believe him when he says "It is finished"? 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (Fourth and Fifth Words)

 Erin writes on "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

Several years ago I went on a weekend retreat with the theme "I thirst." It was a nice retreat, with talks that focused on Jesus's burning love, his thirst, for all souls. I'm sure I came away edified, but Benson's three pages on "I thirst" packs a more visceral punch than two days' worth of earnest talks. 

Why? Because he's not dwelling solely on the spirit plane, so to speak. When Jesus says "I thirst," he's not uttering a spiritual truism. He means it miserably, horribly, painfully, literally. Thirst, Benson points out, is one of the most painful effects of crucifixion. The body is leaking fluids, hung out to dry out from every pore and laceration. (Julian of Norwich writes vividly about Christ's drying flesh.) Jesus was so thirsty and needed help so badly that he was willing to push up on the nails in his feet to get enough air to croak, "I thirst."

And someone helped him.

The bystander who raised a sponge soaked in cheap wine to Jesus's lips seems to have done it out of mere curiosity -- would Elijah come to Jesus's rescue? But it doesn't matter why he did it. Jesus asked, begged, for a drink, and this person provided what would aid and comfort him, if only for a second. It was an act of Mercy to God himself. And it is the only way some souls can approach him, not by accepting his help, but by being the ones to help him.

But here and there are souls that are deaf to Hell and Heaven alike, to whom the future means little or nothing -- souls that are too reckless to fear Hell, to loveless to desire Heaven. And to those He utters His final heart-piercing appeal. "If you will not accept help from me, give at least help to me. If you will not drink from my hands, give me at least drink from yours. I thirst."

It is an amazing thought that men should have reduced Him to this; and it is a suggestive thought that men who will not respond for their own sakes, will sometimes, respond for His. 


O God, come to my assistance,

O Lord, make haste to help me.

Around the world, as Christians take up their prayerbooks to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed, they begin with this plea. And it is to Christians that Benson addresses his next section. Jesus does not appeal only to the irreligious, who can hear him no other way. To the Christian who is himself bloodless, dried out, who says with Jesus, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?", Jesus says, "Come to my assistance; make haste to help me." 

It is only through him that we can thirst at all. 

It is not only that God is our reward, and our Lord; but He must actually be our Way by which we come to Him; we cannot even long for Him without His help.... We cannot even desire Christ without, except by the help of Christ within. The Christ within must cry "I thirst," before the Christ without can give us the Living Water.

This appeal, then, of Jesus must be our last and final motive, when all other impulses have failed. He is so beaten and rejected that He is come even to this. He must ask for mercy upon Himself, before He can have mercy on us. If we do not find our Heaven in Him, at least let Him find His Heaven in us. If we can no longer say, "My soul is athirst for the Living God," at least let us listen when the Living God cries, "My Soul is athirst for you." If we will not let Him minister to us, for very shame let us be content to minister to Him.


Benson follows his usual structure: from Christians, to the Church. The Church herself hangs in agony, sometimes in persecution, sometimes of her own making. Helpless, crumbling, humiliated, ridiculed: "She saved others, why can't she save herself?" How can an institution so flawed and corrupt and ultimately wretched offer the world salvation? How can a Church so needy have anything to give to those in need?

"Yet she can still cry out in pain," says Benson, "for her own sake." And enemies or observers who would not respond for friendship or be moved by her grandeur will respond from curiosity, as with the bystander with the sponge, or in a spirit of debate, as with the woman at the well, or from pity, as the centurion at the foot of the cross. And as they show mercy to the Church, they open themselves to receive mercy from God.

We too, Catholics who see with horror the flaws of the institutional Church, and they are many, are called to have mercy on the Church as the crucified Body of Christ. It's all too easy to become one of the spectators at the crucifixion, offering scornful commentary about Jesus's strategy on the cross and why he didn't stage his suffering differently, getting into theological debates while he slowly suffocates. Only one of these stepped away from analyzing him saying "I thirst" to offer him even the one basic, essential mercy he begged for.


Leah Libresco Sargent (a member of our reading club) quotes this chapter of The Friendship of Christ in her Other Feminisms newsletter

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask first.”

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I’ve heard variants on all these sayings in women’s spaces. At their best, they’re a way of giving permission to treat ourselves like people, rather than caring for everyone but ourself. They speak to a real difficulty, especially for women, in knowing when self-gift becomes self-erasure.

But they can also come with a message of “no.”

If you’re too tired, too neglected, too ill, too weak, you don’t have anything to give until your own cup is filled again, by yourself or by somebody else. The world can feel divided into the helpful and the helpless.

I saw a countervailing idea when I was reading Robert Hugh Benson’s The Friendship of Christ for a Lenten book club. In his reflections on Christ’s last words from the Cross, Benson dwells on a different idea of gift when Christ tells Mary, “Behold your son,” and John, “Behold your mother,” as they stand at the foot of the Cross, unable to aid Him in His Passion.

I feel like "I thirst" suits her theme even more aptly than "Behold your son."