The Sunday collection! It’s almost an eighth sacrament! The weekly envelope dropped into the collection basket and the all too frequent “special collections” envelopes that support all areas of Catholic life have been in use in America since the early part of the last century. Lately budget envelopes are yielding more and more to EFT donations — electronic fund transfers — which transmit funds directly from the family account to the parish account. Thus frequent travelers can be just as consistent in their generosity as their stay-at-home neighbors. Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew only pew rent or seat money — once a nickel, then a dime, and then a quarter — usually collected at the church door on entrance, but sometimes collected by the passing of a basket from pew to pew. And woe to the guy that let that basket slip as it was passed to a neighbor — coins all scattered under the kneelers and pews!
Nationwide second collections range from popular causes like the missions and retired religious to less compelling opportunities like Catholic University and the Campaign for Human Development. Locally parishes promote their own needs by scheduling a second collection, perhaps monthly, for maintenance, fuel, tuition assistance, debt reduction, and the like. Over the past few decades, an “Annual Collection” during which single, sizeable donations are anticipated has proven quite successful in the more affluent parishes of the diocese, sometimes eliciting funds in the $100,000.00 range. And of course the whole diocesan family knows the annual Catholic Charity Fund Appeal as well as periodic capital campaigns which hopefully draw colossal sums.
The omnipresent collecting of money by the Church could easily be viewed simply as another form of fund raising just as the Cancer Society or St. Jude’s Hospital or the Wounded Warriors garner needed resources. But there is a quite ancient and more profound motivation underlying Church collections than the mere maintenance of facilities, as British writer N.T. Wright observes in a recent biography of St. Paul. The original Jerusalem church clearly needed money; they were broke. The Apostle viewed the collection of money for the old time “saints” in Jerusalem as an opportunity as well as an obligation for the new Gentile churches that he was converting. St. Paul happily saw the sharing of resources between the first-founded Jerusalem community in Judea and the newly-founded Gentile communities around the Mediterrean world as an occasion not just for charity but also for building authentic and effective Church unity.
St. Paul hoped his eager collection ministry would actually draw the two contrasting Church communities together. The old-timers would be drawn closer to the new folks as they experienced their generosity. And the new folks would be drawn closer to the old-timers as they saw their funds supporting the Jerusalem church whose courage made them the first to embrace Christ and the Gospel. Both giver and receiver would become one by their common appreciation of Christ and his teachings. St. Paul’s goal was to have the early Church experience not only practical universality as it expanded to the limits of the Roman Empire but also internal unity as Gentile Christians looked out for Jewish Christians and Jewish Christians became grateful to Gentile Christians. St. Paul’s goal wisely and intentionally was mutual responsibility, mutual involvement, and mutual gratitude among the international Christian community.
On the same level, St. Paul wanted the common Christian faith embraced by both new comers and old timers to prevail over the ethnic and racial diversity that would always characterize a truly Catholic Church. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” St. Paul declares in this Sunday’s second reading, “whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” Here St. Paul introduces his insightful image of the human body in all its complexity as a model of the diverse yet unified structure and operation of Christ’s Church. Baptism sacramentally and effectively draws the wideness of the Church together into one believing community. Now Christians are expected to welcome and to embrace this underlying spiritual unity and to express this oneness in so many ways, some quite lofty and noble, some quite ordinary and handy. Church collections are a practical opportunity to ponder and to promote a sense of camaraderie and solidarity throughout the worldwide church community based on the common Christian belief that Jesus Christ is Son of God and Lord of all.