ROSARIO, Argentina – A Colombian archbishop says he expects the country’s Catholic Church to go bankrupt by August due to the lack of income since the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re about to explode because it’s been three months of zero income and 100 percent of expenses,” said Archbishop Luis José Rueda of Bogota, the country’s capital. “Some bishops are trying to generate solidarity among the wealthier parishes so that they help sustain others.”
Around 90 percent of parish income comes from the collections during Sunday and weekly Masses; but religious services have been suspended since March 15 due to the pandemic.
But for Rueda, the problem goes beyond parishes going broke: The country today has an estimated 5,000 churches, that sustain between 50,000 to 80,000 charitable efforts and social institutions, including schools, homes for the elderly, rehab centers and soup kitchens.
If the Church were to go bankrupt, all these social institutions that feed, educate and provide health care to millions in Colombia would be forced to close too.
There’s no state contribution to the finances of the church in Colombia, nor tax allocations – like in several European countries, including Germany, Spain and Italy — where people give part of their yearly taxes to the Catholic Church.
To pay the salaries of church personnel during the crisis, the Church in Colombia has tapped its savings, but according to Rueda, they will run out of money by August unless they’re able to open churches again.
Despite this however, in an interview with La Republica he does not advocate the resumption of public Masses.
“We’ve upheld our contracts and paid the salaries of our employees, because we know that letting them go is to send them into hunger, need and social protest,” the prelate said. “Our criteria has been to keep everyone, but we no longer have funds to afford this.”
Among the list of Church-run projects that are in danger are soup kitchens and schools, that have also been closed.
“Parents who pay a minimum fee for the education of their children cannot pay it either, and a payroll of teachers and workers from these education entities depends on it,” Rueda said. “But we also have the homes for elderly, which are many, and some of which host 120 elderly at a time, and at the moment there are several difficulties to sustain these.”
What makes everything more complicated for senior living facilities and nursing homes is that safety protocols for COVID-19 are expensive. Some of these homes receive state funds, Rueda acknowledge, but most don’t.
“Fortunately, food has not been lacking, but many of these projects support themselves when there is a Eucharistic celebration and there is the possibility of collection, both for soup kitchens and homes for the elderly, so all these charitable activities are also at risk by having the churches closed, because that’s where charity is encouraged,” he said.
Colombia has been virtually closed since mid-March. There have been 77,000 positive cases of COVID-19 and 2,491 deaths. As is the case in the rest of Latin America, the numbers continue to grow instead of receding.
“We are also making use of the few resources that we had saved and we are sharing them internally. It is like a poverty lived with dignity and with fraternity and solidarity, but we are running out.” Rueda said.
“We are scraping the last thing out there,” he said. “From the financial, labor and economic point of view. The receipts of the services are coming, the insurance of the cars in which we transport, everything.”
“We have been consistent with the message in favor of life and because of that, since March we have closed all the churches in Colombia,” Rueda continued. “During the pandemic we have been very attentive to the indications of the National Government and local governments in all regions, so as not to contravene any of the norms. And we have presented with the Episcopal Conference the reopening protocols.”
The Colombian government has said cities with no communal transmission of COVID-19 could start reopening houses of worship, but this means that of the 5,000 churches in the country, only about 500 would be able to re-open. That could possible happen as soon as this weekend, if local governments give the green light.
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