Friday, January 2, 2015


I have mixed feelings about the Filipino challenge to priests to live simpler and humbler lives. Overall I think it is a step in the right direction. I think different countries and dioceses, based upon subsidiarity, should tackle this as appropriate for the place, culture and challenges there are.

Secular or Diocesan priests do not take a vow or promise of poverty. We should be treated differently than those in religious orders, such as Jesuits and Conventual Franciscans who do take vows of poverty.

When I was ordained in 1980 our bishop emphasized at the time that we should be preparing for our retirement. The diocesan pension would not be enough to live on. We should also be paying into Social Security and putting monies away in savings, such as personal retirement accounts.  As I am now 9 years away from retirement, I am glad that I did what our bishop recommended. More than likely others will inherit my retirement nest egg.

While secular priests do not make a promise of poverty, there is a nebulous theology that we should live in Gospel simplicity. We don't make a great deal every month in terms of salaries and stipends, but we do live comfortably.  We can inherit property and money from our parents, siblings and friends.

Every priest needs to decide for himself what Gospel simplicity means for himself and a presbyterate.

Our diocesan policy is that we are to wear clerical attire when we are on duty. For me that means 24 hours a day! However, I wear gym shorts to the gym and secular clothes on vacation and when traveling. So I have other shirts, pants and shoes that are not clerical clothes.

I drive a nice car. In two years I've put 42,000 miles on it and I travel rural Georgia frequently and have hit a dear in a smaller car and have had numerous close calls. I have a mid size SUV now because it is easier for me to get in and out of given some knee issues and aging issues. It is large and provides more protection in the case of a deer encounter or accident. I have driven Honda Accords for most of my priesthood but this last one purchased two years ago and slightly used is a Nissan Murano and yes it is quite nice.

I do think priests need to be a bit more careful about extravagant vacations especially to Europe. I now of some priests who go overseas several times a year. I can see how parishioners eye brows might be raised. My mother did not go back to visit her sisters and brother in Italy for 12 years after we left Italy to come to Georgia in 1957. She returned to Italy no more than 10 times from 1968 to her last trip when she turned 80 in 1999.

In terms of helping the poor, we priests should not be enabling sin on the part of the poor who take advantage of people seeking money not to feed themselves or their families but to purchase booze of drugs.

We have ministries in Macon to assist the poor. These are what I support. Those who offer these ministries do so in a constructive way. We are fortunate in Macon to have a variety of resources for the chronically poor and street people. We don't need to contribute to their dishonesty by giving them money which they request for one thing and will use for something else that is completely harmful to them.

Finally, I do think that diocesan bishops should encourage more traditional rectory lives. When I was ordained I was in the last days of rectories which always had a full time housekeeper/cook. She or he would provide breakfast, lunch and supper as well as cleaning and laundry. Priests rarely went out to eat and if they did they had to pay for it themselves since they opted to eat out when a meal was prepared in the rectory.

Priests today eat on the run, eat too much fast food, go to too many fancy restaurants and often live as bachelors in their rectories even when there are multiple priests, fending for themselves and eating when they want rather than at scheduled times with brother priests. 

There is a crisis of rectory living with priests that no one seems to want to address or to develop a healthier way of doing things which we seem to get right in the 1950's and well into the early 1980's.


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Living simply can be a challenge, to be sure. I find at my present age, 56, I want to practice less consumption and more de-accession.

I don't think that the theology of simpler living is nebulous. Certainly simplicity is relative. When I was on sabbatical in 2004, a priest from Tanzania and I were walking once in downtown Chicago. He asked, "Michael, how does your bishop keep you?" I said, "Castus, I'm not sure what you mean." "May I ask what your salary is?" I told him that, at that time, it cost a parish about $40K a year to have a priest, about half of that being salary. "Oh!" he said. "My salary is $60.00 (sixty dollars) a month." And that included his total "remuneration package."

In a society as wealthy as ours, it is easy to think that making "only" $30,000 a year means that one is poor-ish. But, as a priest, I will never be hungry, never worry about having a roof over my head, and never lack the best medical care available. I have to keep that in mind if I ever worry that my remuneration is "sub-par."

I don't agree that there is any crisis in rectory living. Having a full time housekeeper is, in my judgment, an exceptional and unnecessary luxury. The vast majority of priests live alone, so there is no need for a full time employee to "care" for the domestic needs of a priest. At present I shop for groceries and cook for myself, do my own laundry, and have the parish maintenance man in twice a month to clean the rectory.

There are many places, many in this country, that a priest can go that are far more expensive than Europe. On my October vacation to Spain, we traveled with a moderate cost company and did just fine. Had I spent twelve days in Manhattan or San Francisco, I'd have paid far more for the lodging and food that we enjoyed in Spain.

Jdj said...

Certainly, simplicity is not only relative, but very much self-defined. In our materialistic culture, we ALL define it differently and, unfortunately, in comparison to each other rather than to a higher standard. More's the pity... That is why it becomes ever more important for all of us, clerical and secular, to have good counter-cultural role models to call us out. Gospel living with Christ as the true model is the goal; most of us won't reach it in this life, but sanctity awaits in the trying...

Anonymous said...

Since you are one of the deans it is your responsibility to address this issue of the crisis of rectory living to the Bishop. That would help a lot of priests.

Servimus Unum Deum said...

Hello Father,

I do agree with your assessment of this Phillipino bishop's calling in a certain sense.

I feel that it is too much an extreme of social justice that is all about "feeding the poor" and not balancing out the Faith and Works part of our Catholic faith. Just because Pope Francis is all about it and hence the "Pope of the Poor," doesn't mean we should be throwing out common sense out the window.

Further, as a young man in his 30's who cares about the faith (unlike most), yes we need to do as much as possible to tend to social justice needs as Christ asked us, but I am overall not pleased at the direction the Church has gone and wishes it would be more balanced and not focused heavily to the extreme on social justice. I'll do as much as I can in my positing to help out (I just won't gloat here about every activity I do for humility and piety's sake,) but please, balance my worship and liturgy, with my charity! Otherwise why bother being part of the Church when I could easily do the same as a secular humanist/

I'd say then, that your mentality and what you've written on this is a balanced assessment, one I wish more clergy would have. Thanks Fr.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this insight into the practicalities of the clerical life. It seems rude to ask, and no one ever discusses it, so one just assumes priests live simpler, less materialistic lives and are doing okay. I never give a second thought to the fanciness of a car the priest drives, or where he chooses to vacation if I can see he lives a modest life. I have seen priests who seem to like the "high life" and let their friends indulge them, but I don't actually know the particulars, so I don't judge.

I am assuming a salary of around $30,000 is pretty good when you don't have to pay for housing, furnishings, utilities or health insurance. It's not clear from your post if you have to pay for your own food bought and eaten at the rectory. Also, I expect your clothing needs are simpler than a layman's. So, not having to cover your basic needs (housing, food, utility costs) probably makes your effective salary (what you would have to make to cover housing, food, utility costs) $20,000 greater than the dollar amount you receive.

But it is sad that priests are mostly living alone, since the company of other men in the same circumstances probably builds a sense of togetherness and unity of purpose that makes the life of a priest easier.

Gene said...

If a Priest is devout and a true believer who seeks to spread and defend the Faith, I don't give a damn if he drives a Maserati and wears Armani.

Rood Screen said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Father MacDonald.

While the Church does oblige priests to foster "simplicity of life", to "refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity", and even to "avoid those things which, although not unbecoming, are nevertheless foreign to the clerical state", I don't think any of this is meant to cause anxiety. On the contrary, by living simply and without worldly distractions, a certain feeling of evangelical liberation develops, freeing us to do our work without reservations. We even become generous!

As for beggars, it may well be the case that they are all dishonest and addicted. But we are all dishonest, and we become addicted to our own vices, which is why Christ sends out prophets and priests into this world of dishonesty and vice. We are called to love them with Gospel mercy, which must be personal, and not merely institutional. Roses before bread, and all that.

If priests are going to start denying affectionate mercy to sinners, then I suggest that the addicted poor be the last ones to be cut off from our personal mercy. If we are infinitely patient with the dishonest rich man who gives generously to the parish, then we should muster some patience for the dishonest poor man. Otherwise, I don't think we're going to make it into Heaven.

The one who's comfortable in this life goes to Hell, while the one who's uncomfortable goes to Heaven. C.f. "The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus".

Gene said...

There is also pride in self-conscious, chosen poverty.
It can become a form of self-righteousness and spiritual elitism.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Bee - Yes, the $30K salary is almost entirely at my disposal. That makes me, in comparison to many, fairly well off.

Our housing and food is paid for, as are all out-of-pocket medical expenses in excess of $500 a year. Also provided are car repairs and maintenance and cell phones. Medical insurance costs each parish around $12,000 per priest per year. (Under The Affordable Care Act I could, if not prevented by diocesan policy, buy a similar health insurance plan for about $1,800 per year...)

We do pay 100% of our income taxes and 100% of our Social Security. FICA takes a pretty good bite out of the salary. What is it now, 15.3%? Oddly, for income taxes we are considered employees, but for Social Security, we Catholic priests are considered self-employed.

I make car payments, weekly contributions to the parish. I pay for clothes, including clerical attire, personal care items. I own my personal computer and Nexus tablet and pay for upkeep and maintenance of those.

If a priest has a hobby - water colors, scuba diving, golf, stamp collecting - he bears those expenses personally.

The "International Priests" who serve in our diocese can have very high costs for home visits. Current fares from Atlanta to Bogata are right at $1,000; to Crakow, $2,100; to Lagos, $4,400!

Gene said...

Most of the Priests I have known (and I attended grad school with a number of them) have been well-educated and reasonably cultured and have had an appreciation for quality, nice things, and culture. Many have driven nice cars and owned quality items like cameras, sporting equipment, objets d'art, etc. Some liked to travel. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this, even if I razzed Ignotus about it. Most of these Priests understand these things as material blessings and are not unduly attached to them nor do they idolize them. They have their spiritual priorities straight and could give these things up if they had to. Compared to their protestant brethren, most Priests look like beggars…before I left the ministry, I was making 50K a year with a generous house and car allowance and I was considered to be the average.

John Nolan said...

Fifty years ago a priest in a moderately-sized parish would have had a curate to assist him, and there would have been a housekeeper (bishops would ensure that she was sufficiently old and ugly not to be a cause of temptation). Nowadays it can be a lonely job, unless you live in a community as the Oratory fathers do. Alcoholism can be a problem.

In Anthony Trollope's 'The Way We Live Now' (1875) the squire Roger Carbury is in the habit of entertaining the local Catholic priest to dinner (the latter is dependent for his upkeep on the contributions from his flock, who are themselves poor). Carbury does not like to see someone who is obviously 'a gentleman' living in penury. In contrast his Anglican counterpart along with his wife and children is in receipt of tithes and is thus well-off.

Priests in England are less prosperous than their US counterparts and both fall well-short of their compadres in Germany. As for priests 'dying rich' (which assumes they have inherited wealth which they have not spent) where is the scandal in this? They have no descendants of their own to leave it to, so it is most likely to go to a worthy cause.

Archbishop Villegas and Pope Francis might like to consider the following.
1. Poverty is not in itself virtuous, and indeed engenders vice and religious indifference, as the 'slum priests' of the 19th century knew full well.
2. Wealth is not in itself a vice; the greatest philanthropists have been wealthy men - you can't give money to charity if you don't have any.
3. Lack of ambition is not in itself a virtue; indeed it can betoken acedia and sloth.
4. Lack of intellectual ability is not a desirable attribute; again, Pope Francis in one of his less felicitous remarks opined that men of intellect should be university professors, not bishops. Is there an echo here of his own rather undistinguished academic career?

The prospect of a Church run by unambitious and none-too-clever mediocrities who don't take the trouble to dress appropriately and are malodorous to boot, is hardly an alluring one. But hey, doesn't this sum up most of the bishops anyway?

George said...

I have never really given much thought or concern to what material possessions priests have. I figured the diocese provided enough income for them to live comfortably. If this were not the case, I'm sure we as a parish would make sure that their financial and other needs were met. There is the matter of saving up for the inevitable retirement. I have no problem with a priest being able to travel somewhere on his vacation time. It is all relative. By standards of the Catholic church in Germany, most priests in the U.S. would be considered to be living quite modestly. If compared to some parts of the Third world, they would be considered to be living rather extravagantly. Beyond basic needs being met, it is up to each priest to decide on how his income is to be used. I would be concerned if a priest was struggling financially (as would the bishop, one would think). There are still Catholics under the mistaken notion that parish priests are under a vow of poverty.

Anonymous said...

Getting practical....

If you save $10K per year for 40 years and earn about 7.5% on average at the end of that period you'll have about $2.3 million. Then you'll need to inflation adjust those dollars which would mean a net return of about 4.5% and you'll be left with about $1 million in today's value. That should provide for a comfortable retirement for a single person who avoids any significant long term care expenses. If the Obama Soc Sec system doesn't implode a person could have about $65K in today's dollars in annual retirement income. Not as good as the holy teachers/cops/firemen but not too bad.

I think this discussion reveals the complications that occur with a married clergy. The costs swell and the potential for petty snipping about what kind of clothes the Rev's wife is wearing is endless.


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Mike - It's not the "Obama Soc Sec system."

It's the FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama Social Security system.

Anonymous said...

Father K,

I guess I'm under Barry's spell. He likes to give himself credit for so many things that it just felt right to give him full credit for the program.

I'm not sure I can accept your comparative health care numbers. What kind of coverage is a 56 year male able to purchase for $1800/year vs the $12K policy you're provided. Those numbers sound a little off to me.


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Mike - The $1,800 amount came from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation calculator ( back when the ACA went into effect.

I have used the same calculator and, for a silver level plan (which I chose previously) the updated cost is $2,169 per year.

The $12K per year that is currently paid for each priest in our diocese is thought by everyone to be exceedingly high. The plan is put out for bids regularly. We don't seem to be able to get a better price because we have a (1) small pool of plan members and (2) a significant number of very high cost claimants.

When I was pastor of St. Boniface in Springfield our parish council finance committee chair was an insurance agent. When he heard how much we were paying - it was about $9,000 per year then - he nearly had a cow. He took it upon himself to find an comparable plan for an individual on the open market and, if I recall, said he could provide the same insurance for about $4,000 a year. I asked the home office if I could leave the diocesan plan and get health insurance through his source and was told, firmly, "No."

Anonymous said...

Father K,

Sorry to hear the news about the diocese's premiums. It does sound like a project for someone to address to see if a better deal exists.

I'm 52 and have an ACA compliant plan and for two adults it costs us $840/month. I'm not sure the source you're using is giving an accurate quote. My plan is also considered to be silver.


George said...


According to the Fed. government's CPI inflation calculator, $10,000 40 years ago would be the equivalent of $47,900.81 today. Few priests were making that kind of money back then and many (most?) don't make that kind of money today. An income of $30,000 today would be equivalent to $6,262.94 in 1974 dollars. Putting away a third of that toward retirement would $2097.65 ($174.80 monthly) in that first year. One would increase that each year according to how much one's income increased.

Let's say that someone put $500 a month away 40 years ago earning interest of 7.5% annually ( .625 percent per month compounded monthly). That would get one to a final sum of $272,585.46 in today's dollars. (That is equivalent to $56,906.23 in 1974 dollars by the way.)

I used $500 dollars in the example because that is roughly the average of putting away every year 1/3 of current yearly income per month this past year as against 1/3 40 years ago.

There are a lot of factors that go into how much one can save per month and so this is only a basic calculation.

There have been instances of priests accumulating a million or more through savings and investments, but they are the exception not the rule.

Anonymous 2 said...


For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on (sarcasm alert) driving a Maserati and wearing Armani seems to me to be more suited to the style of an Al Pacino character (one in particular) than a priest. Put another way, isn’t your comment somewhat oxymoronic? =)

Gene said...

Anon 2, OK, a Mercedes and Brooks Brothers. There fixed it.

Anonymous said...


I also assumed a 33% savings rate for a priest or about 10K per year. Based on the numbers that Father K cited. At these rates I think my math works out. I'd have to recalculate to see what the numbers turn out to be for someone who started the program 40 years ago rather starting now.

I'm not at all suggesting that priests are paid too much. In fact I doubt that many are able to save $10K per year and if they do they're probably investing poorly, like most people do.


Rood Screen said...

I can assure everyone that not every diocese in the US South gives priests a $30,000 annually in salary.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

JBS that's not straight salary as it also includes room/board and other perks such as auto expenses (we use our car for work, so that's hardly to be considered a perk).

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

The cost to a parish in the Diocese of Savannah for a priest, including salary and the full benefits package, is between $55K and $60K a year. Approximately $30K is in salary, the rest being in other provided benefits.

Gene said...

Thirty thousand is a very modest salary in today's world and the Church should take care of her Priests with good benefits, housing, etc. Neither should a Priest be expected to drive a clunker unless he just chooses to do so.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gene. I seriously doubt that we have too many priests retiring in comfort and living extravagant lives in the rectory. I saw how the parish priest I had for the first 22 years of my life lived in his retirement and I didn’t like it. He was fortunate to have Albertine sisters care for him when he needed assistance and their care for him was a blessing he deserved. Nuns like them you will not find at the HQs of the LCWR. There is a way to save and invest that could increase the chances of a better retirement but I think our main problem is that many retired diocesan priests are continuing to make hardship sacrifices after they leave their active assignments.

If priests need help with planning please check out my website: I will offer fully complimentary counseling. If no one in your parish is available offering complimentary services or if you prefer the anonymity from someone in a remote location please feel free to take me up on my offer. You’ll find all my contact info on the website.


Gene said...

Now, Mike, gathering assets on the blog…shame on you…LOL! I know, I was in the financial industry,too, starting out as a stock broker.

Anonymous said...

Gene, I'm trying to lure them in with free services and then I can trap them into a variable annuity where I can make an 10% commission. The devil tried to tortured Homer Simpson with a doughnut eating machine, I wonder what he would have in store for me?

Gene said...

Yeah, Mike, I remember the "everybody gets an annuity whether they need it or not" days. Can you say, "NASD investigation?" LOL!