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How much is a priest worth?

A CLOUD of desolation hovers over the community that gathers at Our Lady Help of Christians parish because of the dismissal of their beloved pastor, the Rev. Walter Cuenin. On the last weekend in September, Cuenin announced to parishioners that the archdiocese was ending his tenure as pastor and informed them that the reason was for financial impropriety. His departure prompted speculation that the purported reason was merely a smoke screen for displeasure with his progressive stance on a number of moral and cultural issues of the day.

Concerning the question of the financial improprieties, what is the issue? The parish finance committee annually awarded Cuenin a package that included a generous $500-a-month stipend and the free use of a leased automobile along with his regular salary and benefits. It would appear that the extra contribution was judged by the archdiocese as contrary to policy regarding the scale for priests' salaries and benefits.

What was at stake? For some folks such policies appear to be mere cumbersome bureaucratic legality. However, the reason for the policy goes deeper than the ability and desire of a parish financial committee to reward a favored pastor. There is a history to the reasoning behind the policy, namely equity regarding a fair salary structure for all diocesan priests. Hopefully, the following history may illustrate the issue and point out the problem.

During the late 1970s I held the elected position of president of the Archdiocesan Priests Senate, an advisory body to Archbishops Cushing and Medeiros. At that time the issue of a salary and stipend adjustment was proposed. It had been the custom in every parish that the stipends and fees for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and Masses were placed in a common pot known as the ''corbona." At the end of the month the pot was divided among the priests of the parish.

It was obvious that if one were assigned to a bustling parish, the monthly share, added to a basic salary, was much larger than if one were stationed in the inner city or a smaller suburban parish. It became a matter of equity and justice among a number of priests across the archdiocese.

After lengthy debate the proposal was voted upon favorably and presented as an advisory recommendation to Cardinal Medeiros. The basic salary figure was increased. The corbona was to become regular parish income to offset the additional expenses required by the new salary structure. Priests were allowed to keep $2 from the offerings, known as stipends, for daily Masses, weddings, and funerals. Currently the amount is $5. In fairness to older priests an additional $75 allotment was included for each year of service after ordination.

The arguments surrounding the proposed changes were contentious, since advantage and privilege were being dismantled. Cardinal Medeiros finally accepted and implemented the new agreement that remains the basis for the current policy.

During the intervening decades the following refinements were added to the policy. For income tax purposes, priests were designated as ''self-employed." The base salary was periodically increased and benefits adjusted. Stringent guidelines, in conformity with IRS regulations, were issued pertaining to taxable income.

I can understand why a parish financial committee would want to reward a talented pastor with generous fringe benefits. A number of parishes have the resources to do so. As the number of diocesan priests decreases faster than the number of parishes, will the chairperson of the finance committee wave the parish checkbook as parishes scramble for a new pastor?

However, many parishes are not in financial circumstances to do as much. For these parishioners their only recourse is to convey their appreciation in personal expressions of affirmation. In these conflicted times for laity and clergy alike, a few encouraging words may be worth the proverbial ''million" -- and it is not taxable.

The Rev. John O'Donnell is parochial vicar at St. Gregory's Parish in Dorchester.

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