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Deal imports American bottom-line accounting to Italy’s Catholic churches

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The new program brings a measure of American financial savvy to Italy's notoriously murky church finances, dovetailing with Pope Francis' push for reform and transparency.

The main building of the Pontifical Lateran University.
The main building of the Pontifical Lateran University.

The main building of the Pontifical Lateran University.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A number of Catholic parishes in Italy are set for a management overhaul, following a new training program launched on Tuesday (May 5) between the Villanova School of Business and the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

The deal signed between the two universities will see Villanova bring educators from its Center for Church Management and Business Ethics to the classroom in Rome.

The new program will bring a measure of American financial savvy to Italy’s notoriously murky church finances, dovetailing with Pope Francis’ push for reform and transparency, especially when it comes to church bank accounts.

Students at the Pontifical Lateran University’s new School of Pastoral Management will also receive online training from Villanova, in addition to the chance to take part in a one-week summer program at Villanova’s main campus in suburban Philadelphia.

Charles Zech, director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova, said pupils would benefit from his team’s 11-year experience of running such programs. “They’re all aimed at improving church management; it’s a real problem that parishes aren’t better run,” he said on Tuesday, after a signing ceremony to mark the partnership.

The first students to attend Rome’s School of Pastoral Management began their training in February and are due to visit the U.S. campus in April 2016. The collaboration will see Villanova faculty teach modules starting next February, after which Zech anticipated seeing an immediate impact.

“The nicest thing I’ve heard is pastors who have students in the program, who say: ‘Our church workers learn something in the class one week, then they apply it in our parish the following week.’ So we have immediate applicability to the things we’re teaching,” he said.

Before Villanova professors arrive in Rome, pupils will this fall learn how to assess the needs of the communities they serve. After studying areas such as ethics and precisely how to start a pastoral service, they will be trained in managing financial resources.

Giulio Carpi, director of the School of Pastoral Management in Rome, said the course was designed to improve the handling of both economic and human resources. “There’s a great need today to have better management in churches,” he said, adding that Europe had perhaps fallen behind the U.S. in this regard.

After speaking to pupils in Rome, Zech agreed that there were significant differences in the way parishes are run in the U.S. and Italy. “A lot of the concepts that I took for granted were foreign to the students, they didn’t understand what I was referring to,” he said, using “pledging,” or planned annual financial giving, as one example of a fundraising technique unheard of in Rome.

“Promising that at the beginning of the year I will contribute a certain number of dollars over the year — many of the students in the program found that to be a strange concept,” Zech said.

He chalked the knowledge gap up to the lack of state funding for churches in the U.S., meaning church managers had to diversify the way they raised money. “In Italy that’s not the case,” Zech noted, “but it might be someday.”

While the pupils had much to learn from Villanova, Capri noted that change was already underway in Italy. He said the papacy of Pope Francis — who has pushed for an overhaul of the Vatican administration — has sped up the reform process in Rome.

“Certainly the Holy Father has prompted a great acceleration from this point of view. Two years ago an exercise like this would probably have been more difficult,” he said.

Capri has high hopes for a new and global generation of church managers, with both laypeople and clergymen currently taking the Pontifical Lateran University course. “In the first edition, we already have four countries represented. The second edition will be at the international level, in English, Spanish and Italian,” he said, adding that people had already signed up to take the next available seats in the classroom.


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