In a searing editorial, Catholic Diocese of Ballarat business manager Andrew Jirik was honest about the state of parish finances across western Victoria, and it's not looking good.
"There is no subtle way to state this, but it is a simple message: We need more Catholics to support their parishes, not just the same parishioners supporting it more," he wrote in Our Diocesan Community.
Quoting American author Chris Lowney, he compared the issue to the Protestant Reform 500 years ago.
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He told The Courier the church, and the diocese, is hurting, and not all 116 churches in the diocese might survive.
"People are turning away from the church, there's no question, but until we admit we've got a problem, we can't address it," he said. "So let's say there is a problem."
Parish finances are separate from the broader diocesan finances - each parish is responsible for itself, but it also means parish accounts are not directly affected by National Redress Scheme or civil claims from survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
They're also separate from incorporated bodies like Centacare, and Catholic schools.
Mr Jirik's article identifies "church-goers remain the primary source of income for our parishes", while diminishing finances, rising costs, a lack of planning and prioritisation, a lack of capability and expertise, duplication of services, and cultural attitudes were the cause of two major strategic risks - insufficient funds at the diocese level, and insufficient resources to provide for the long-term sustainability of parishes.
The Ballarat diocese includes 41 separate parishes, stretching from Mildura to Warrnambool.
However, already, some have been amalgamated as population in the Wimmera shrinks, and more could be amalgamated in the future.
The Dunolly parish is a good example of changing demographics, Mr Jirik said.
150 years ago, with a population of 12,000, parishioners donated to build a large church, but now, the population is closer to 900.
"We have a regular mass attendance of about 17," Mr Jirik said.
"We've got people holding on, and I'm saying, well, that's fine, but there's a cost in all that, or we can do this in a way that's a bit more structured."
The value of land is also an issue, especially in small towns.
"There's buildings insured for millions of dollars but not worth millions, in fact they're costing us money to hold, and even if the building was worth anything, the land is not worth much," he said.
"Parishes in Warrnambool or Daylesford, they can do okay out of the land, but the building itself is not worth much."
Several churches, including Springdallah and Clunes, have been sold in recent years, but it's not as simple as phoning up a real estate agent - there's a consultation process with parishioners required, as well as the parish priest.
To continue charitable parish work, the parishes should be looking at "other income streams", he added.
"We've gone down from 51 to 41 (parishes), and we've got plans to shrink it even further to get more efficiency out of it," he said.
"If we don't do anything, half won't survive.
"The reality is, people aren't turning up, so there's a question, do we need all the parishes? Do you need all the priests?"
While there's other land that is owned by the diocese, including office buildings and homes for retired clergy, a key part of revenue is the collection plate, and that requires people to actually show up at Mass.
The revelations of paedophile priests and alleged cover-ups have not helped encourage people to return.
"There's a lot of people who aren't very proud of what's gone on, and you can see it in our mass numbers, mass counts are down - not just for us, but we are hurting," Mr Jirik said.
"The people have spoken, to some extent.
"It is hurting us, not just financially, and whether we can ever recover is a whole other thing, and I'm probably out of my depth to comment on that.
"I'm doing what I can do, in this space, to save the parishes, or at least, as best we can, keep them going where it makes sense to keep them going, and not just ignore the fact and one day there's no money in the bank."
If people want their parishes to continue, he said, they would have to show up.
"I go to Mass on a Sunday afternoon at 5pm, and particularly in May there's a lot of people getting their confirmations, but after they've got it, and they're into a Catholic school, their connection with the parish, or the church, just disappears," he said.
"They're not there supporting the parish like they used to.
"Even the Catholics aren't turning up, and that's a choice - if we want our parishes there, we need to support them."
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