Fr. Bill Hanson Witness Talk

Fr. Bill Hanson   Witness talk on Grateful Giving

Feast of Christ the King  2017   Mary Immaculate Parish  Bellport, NY

I first heard about Grateful Giving, returning a fixed portion of income to God each year through church and charity, when I was still an associate pastor 30 years ago. The pastor of the parish where I was stationed told us he had invited a group of lay people from the McKenna Tithing Program, a volunteer group of laypeople from New Jersey.

I wasn’t that interested frankly because to my way of thinking raising money was the pastor’s job, and mine was to spend it  - on pastoral programs and the like. I never seriously gave it much thought because raising funds seemed to me to be a purely administrative task and not part of the real spiritual work of the parish, like religious education or preaching or the liturgy.

Not a single word was ever spoken about money in the life of a parish when I was in the seminary, but plenty was said about theology and spirituality. They just seemed to be opposite ends of the spectrum, so I never paid much attention to the money part of parish life. In the 18 years I was an associate nothing ever really required me to pay attention to money in church. As an associate I was getting to do all the spiritual stuff and didn’t have to worry about money until I became a pastor. And I presumed when that happened it would be a piece of cake. (It wasn’t!)

So this kind of shy man came from New Jersey to speak at that parish one weekend. He was pleasant enough but he was a big chain smoker with shaky hands and a nervous manner. What would I have to learn from him, I wondered arrogantly?

At homily time I sat in the presider’s chair as usual and the pastor introduced our visitor to the congregation. He got up in the pulpit and in the course of his talk said something I never forgot for the next 30 years. He was describing his parish in New Jersey and said, that at one time in that parish, “Who was right became more important than what was right.”

My head shot up and I turned toward him and faced the pulpit. He had my full attention, because I realized he was describing what was going on in that parish where I was stationed at the time. He talked about factions and cliques, about competition and constant criticism, relentless nit picking and negativity. I also knew that I was part of the constant criticism and he was describing me as well as others who were disturbing the peace. Did he have the solution I was looking for?

He described how in that parish where he lived all of the negativity only began to change when they were challenged to take the Bible seriously and follow it’s teachings on money and possessions. Would they plan to give a portion of their incomes back to God through church and other charities?

I was stunned! He nailed the problem I was bothered by, and also was a part of, in my own parish. But his solution seemed crazy! How could giving more money, or in my case any money at all, change the negative atmosphere of a parish? His solution didn’t seem “Spiritual” enough!

Up to that point in my life I was already a priest for 16 years and had never given a dime in the Sunday collection. I think I even still owed money on my seminary tuition. To my way of thinking I was giving my life to the church as a priest, God couldn’t possibly expect my money too? Contributing money was something the lay people do.

Yet, I couldn’t get his words out of my mind, “Who was right became more important than what was right.” That summed up exactly what was going on in my parish, and I was realizing that I was a part of it. I wanted to get out of the cycle of criticism and negativity myself. Could this be the path I was looking for, crazy as it seemed at the time?

The man in the pulpit kept saying that God’s love for us is unconditional. But when we hold back from supporting his work because we don’t like this person or that project, we unwittingly start to assume that God places the same conditions on his love for us. So I imagined God saying to me, “I’ll love you Bill,  as soon as you get over this wrong behavior or that habitual sin.”

Wow! I suddenly realized, “I’m poisoning myself!” Who I am – a priest – had become more important than what the Bible is teaching me to do…give back a tenth in gratitude. The man then described the transformation that took place in his parish when they committed to give gratefully: peacefulness instead of enmity; cooperation instead of competition.

By the end of his talk I was all in. Crazy or not, I felt something change inside me and it felt very, very good. I took a little step 30 years ago and it has felt better and better ever since. Though only a little step it was a big leap for me to allow Christ to become the King of my heart. And I am pleased to share with you the same invitation I was given 30 years ago.