Declined with thanks

  • June 12, 2008

The news last week that a huge donation (valued at $19 million for church and land) to build a church in the Greater Toronto Area from auto parts magnate Frank Stronach had been turned by the archdiocese of Toronto created some awkward moments. No one likes to walk away from such magnificent generosity; nor does a potential donor like to see his offer of a gift spurned.

Nevertheless, the decision made by Archbishop Thomas Collins was the right one. It was based on thorough consultation in the parish and the episcopal board of the archdiocese. Considering an important condition on the donation — that Mr. Stronach’s company Magna retain control over the exterior of the church and a significant say in the interior design — a majority on the parish financial council, pastoral council and building committee believed that the Magna proposal should be declined.

At the heart of the issue is the way that a parish becomes and grows as a community. Welcoming, Spirit-filled parishes are organic; they grow in health and vitality because every member — from the eldest to the youngest — has a place. Each person is made to feel not only welcome, but also essential to the well-being of the entire community.

This kind of parish does not develop overnight. It takes much prayer, but also much slow, careful work by pastors and other parish staff members, as well as its leading volunteer ministers. Process is every bit as important as results. Everyone jokes about all the never-ending meetings, but those meetings are necessary. It may not be the most efficient way to get things done, but efficiency is not the prime goal; belonging is more important.

This becomes especially important in such major projects as building a new church. It is critical if, as is usually the case, the parish is expected to raise the bulk of the funds needed to pay for the project.

This parish and ecclesial control over the process at Our Lady of Grace in Aurora, Ont., is what was missing from the Magna proposal, as generous as it was. A parish community needs to have ownership of its future.

It wasn’t long ago that Slovak Catholic Eparch John Pazak abandoned the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Markham after failing to resolve longstanding disagreements over its control with the heirs of Stephen Roman, the benefactor whose money built the cathedral many years past. The parallels are too obvious: wealthy church member wanted to use his good fortune to build a temple of worship that all would be proud to use — yet with strings attached. In the end Bishop Pazak decided that the best interests of his flock would be better served by cutting those strings and returning to the old church. That decision was also sound and serves as a cautionary tale for all churches.

The desires of magnanimous folk such as Frank Stronach deserve to be applauded and encouraged. The world is a better place because of their efforts. Occasionally, though, their gifts must be declined — with thanks.

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