It is a great joy for me, representing IMBISA to participate at this Congress of the clergy organised by the Episcopal Conference of Angola and Sao Tome e Principe. Your Congress discusses an important theme dedicated to the sustenance of the clergy. This congress is being celebrated as the Church prepares herself to celebrate the Extra-ordinary Missionary month on the theme Baptised and Sent as willed by Pope Francis. It is a call to re-look and celebrate the great Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, written a hundred years ago, which gave a great impetus to the Church’s missionary endeavours.
In this brief presentation, which speaks to the experiences of IMBISA on the sustenance of the clergy, I will limit myself to the diocesan clergy, especially those engaged in parish work. Moreover, I will focus on the material and financial sustenance that the church has to provide for the clergy. I will also make some reference to the 2004 IMBISA Plenary Assembly which tacked the topic of self-reliance.
It is a pity that after a hundred years of the letter by Pope Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, not even one Episcopal Conference in the IMBISA region has created a policy on the proper care, material and financial support for members of the clergy. At best we have seen pious statements not supported by real serious policy decisions which should eventually make an impact on the lives of the clergy.
The matter of the sustenance of those who bring the gospel to others enjoys biblical underpinnings. When Jesus sent out the 72 (Cf. Luke 10:1-12), he invited them to take nothing for the journey. He told them that whenever they enter a house, they should accept and eat what is set before them. “But stay in the same house eating and drinking the things from them”. At the end of that great discourse, he added a line which may remain very important, especially for this Congress. “For the worker deserves his pay”.
The worker in this context is the one who has dedicated his life to the preaching of the gospel. The Council Document Presbyterorum Ordinis (#20), picking up on these matters, emphasises the obligation of the lay people to provide for their priests’ sustenance. “This obligation arises from the fact that it is for the benefit of the faithful that priests are working. Bishops are bound to warn the faithful of their obligation in this connection”. The same document proceeds to give a certain warning, lest there be unequal remuneration in a given particular church. “The remuneration to be received by each of the priests should be fundamentally the same for all living in the same circumstances. Moreover, priests’ remuneration should be such as to afford the priest a proper holiday each year. The Bishop should see to it that priests are able to have this holiday”.
The document thus emphasises the Bishop’s duty on two important matters. The first is his duty to warn the faithful of their responsibility to provide for the priests’ sustenance. The second duty of the bishop, which flows from the first, is to see to it that the priest enjoys a proper holiday each year. Particular arrangements should be made that this be a proper holiday, meaning that with the necessary material and financial means. It would be a mistake for us to ignore the adjective that accompanies the issue of the holiday. It must be proper.
An area of great need that Presbyterorum Ordinis (#21) also emphasises is social security to be organised for priests. A ruling is made that some money is to be collected which will subsequently be administered by the bishop together with the help of priests for social security. It is one area in which a document makes a specific and clear indication of the involvement of priests in this work. Lay experts in financial matters are only welcomed where the advantage of such an appointment may make it advisable. Furthermore, there is an invitation that this could even be better done in a region or even at the level of the Episcopal Conference. Tthe document indicates that where social security does not as yet exist, the Episcopal Conference is called upon to establish it. This becomes a form of solidarity as larger and probably richer dioceses come to the aid of smaller and or poorer ones.
Experiences in Imbisa
In the main, at least for the Imbisa region, what seems to be obtaining is that particular churches have made arrangements as to the sustenance and remuneration of priests. There seems to be general agreement that dioceses finance the retreat costs and other exercises of ongoing formation for priests. There is, in the main, a stable figure that gets paid to the priests every month. In some dioceses, at least in the territory of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), a monthly stipend ranges from US $150 -250 and on top of that, about US $ 100 a month for medical insurance. The diocese or the parish normally provides and maintains the vehicle which the priest uses for his work. He is also allowed to use the vehicle for his private errands.
Furthermore, the diocese or even more specifically the parish provides for residence including food and the general expenses of running a parish. When the parish cannot afford all these things, the diocese, in the majority of cases, intervenes.
A colleague indicates that in a Diocese in Mozambique, the monthly allowance is in the region of US $ 50-100. Similar figures, ranging from about US $ 100- 200 seem to obtain as well in other Episcopal Conferences including Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Namibia as well as occasional mass offerings normally provided by the Bishop.
Unfortunately, some priests fall in the cracks. This is especially true when it comes to the giving of regular monthly allowances, holiday allowances and medical assistance. Speaking to a priest in one of the countries of the IMBISA region recently, he narrated the sad situation in his particular church. He said that for them, it is possible to find priests who have very different economic situations. One, who probably stays in town and in a rich parish or even working at the chancery with every means of support he may need. On the other hand, there are priests who find themselves in rural areas or economically poorer areas who struggle to make ends meet.
With the dire economic situation obtaining in a number of countries in the region, the priests are thus forced to begin fending for themselves. Some priests, being industrious, begin on self-help projects which might assist them to get some income. On occasion they use parish resources, including land, to do some business. Unfortunately, very little of the financial rewards coming from such projects get used for the advancement of the church’s missionary work. Moreover, pastoral work suffers because the priest is by now very committed to the project that gives him some financial comforts.
One area though that seems to be generally neglected, in the vast majority of the dioceses, is the provision of a holiday allowance. As such some priests always stick around the parish house and have no means to refresh themselves accordingly. This state of affairs, sad as it is, brings about very low morale among the priests and heightened anxiety about the future. Dioceses that do well in creating a system of fair-shares are few and varied. This is where the richer parishes are accordingly assessed and the money shared with poorer parishes for the sustenance of the clergy. Of course, a proper and more transparent administration must be done in the diocese right from the Bishop’s office to the smallest parish and even the so-called poor parishes in the diocese.
Imbisa 2004 Plenary Assembly
In 2004 the Imbisa Plenary Assembly in Harare Zimbabwe tackled the theme of self-reliance with the subsequent publication of a pastoral letter titled get up and walk. Whilst the theme of the Assembly was self-reliance in general. Nevertheless, I wish to apply its conclusions to the important area of sustenance for the clergy. Among the matters that the Bishops committed themselves to, the following are worth noting:
The proper sustenance, remuneration and support of the clergy is an important activity in the life of the Church. This is so that the clergy may have the necessary means to accomplish their task as their vocation demands. Unfortunately, none of the Episcopal Conferences in the Imbisa zone has developed a plan on how this can be done. As a result, this causes lots of anxiety among members of the clergy who more often than not embark on self-help projects to make ends meet. Whilst this is not bad in itself, this may hamper the work of the Church as more time and energy are spent on projects and activities that are at times foreign to the missionary spirit expected of the clergy.
The IMBISA Plenary Assembly of 2004 tackled the subject of self-reliance. This should, in a way, accrue to the important subject of the sustenance of the clergy. Whilst there is a lot of good work happening in certain particular churches, we remain aware that some of these churches have not been able to support their clergy accordingly. As such a proper plan, handled at the level of the Episcopal Conference, would seem to be best practice in supporting clergy who, on occasion, unfortunately fall through the cracks.
Fr. Dumisani Vilakati
Imbisa Pastoral Department
17 August 2019