Reprinted with permission from The Virginian-Pilot.

During a Lenten homily to 1,500 Catholics, the Rev. John-Mary Tompkins pried the lid off a touchy but seldom discussed issue among South Hampton Roads parishes.

Not contraception. Not the prohibition against married clergy. Not the debate over women's ordination.

The target of Tompkins' disapproval was bingo.

The game of chance is a big fundraising tool for many local nonprofit groups. In South Hampton Roads, a half-dozen Catholic parishes and schools grossed $3.34 million from bingo in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, according to the state Charitable Gaming Commission. Of that sum, $392,882 went to charitable causes such as parochial schools.

But to Tompkins, raising money with bingo poses troubling questions.

Should Catholics rely on bingo players--who typically are not Catholic--to support their ministries and schools? If Catholics' faith is truly deep, shouldn't they dig deeper into their own pockets?

Other Catholics, however, see bingo as a vital source of revenue.

Without it, the men's club at St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach might never have raised the $61,000 it gave the parish school last year.

Had the school not received that infusion, "We'd be raising tuition more than we want to" or searching for new funding sources, said the principal, Sister Patricia O'Donnell.

Yet the number of parishes nationwide that host bingo has declined. And the anti-bingo contingent locally includes one very influential member: Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

"I've always been opposed to parish-sponsored or church-sponsored bingo," said Sullivan, whose Diocese of Richmond includes South Hampton Roads.

The bishop believes the unrealistic hope of winning a jackpot lures people, such as senior citizens, who cannot afford to squander money.

The Catholic Church does not prohibit gambling, and Sullivan acknowledges that bingo is no sin. But he faults it for another reason:

"It becomes a substitution for what is our responsibility: to put our money where our mouth is," Sullivan said. "We should be responsible for the giving to our parish and outreach needs, rather than relying on outsiders."

It's Friday night, and the gymnasium at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church is thick with cigarette smoke and bingo players.

The prizes range from $100 to $3,750. Many players better their odds by working as many as 21 cards at a time. Some also buy dozens of "instant" bingo tickets, which, like instant lottery tickets, pay off immediately.

For most players, helping St. Gregory's school and ministries is not a priority.

"Catholic school is beside the point--I go play bingo to get out of the house," says Joan Kukrall of Virginia Beach, a Friday night regular.

Helen Gowens, also of Virginia Beach, plays only at St. Gregory. She says the volunteers who run the game are nice, trustworthy people.

"It's nothing to do with the religion," she says. "They could be anything they want to be, so long as I holler bingo."

Norfolk's Debbie Chapman is one of the few Catholics playing tonight, but she doesn't care whether a game is church-sponsored or not. She's there for the fun, although she does remember a time when excitement turned into addiction.

"A lot of people can't control it. I admit, I was that way once," she says, dabbing ink on the last number announced by a caller. "I see people who are crazy, fighting to get to the instant table. Instant tickets, that's gambling...and gambling is a very hard thing to control."

These days, Chapman generally limits herself to no more than three bingo outings a week. Win or lose, she refuses to spend more than a certain amount.

The St. Gregory Men's Club, which runs the game, helps other players exercise restraint. The club vetoed the idea of installing an automatic teller machine, and it doesn't take checks. But there is a credit union ATM in the parking lot.

Club president Jim Sciortino spends up to eight hours overseeing the weekly bingo session. He devotes at least two more evenings each week to paperwork and planning.

As a Catholic, Sciortino sees managing bingo as one way of meeting his responsibility to support the church.

"I'm 56. When I was 30, my father came to my house and said, 'You're getting ready to put a kid in parochial school.' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'That school is supported by bingo.' I said, `Yes.' He said, 'I expect to see you there Friday night.'"

Sciortino has been there ever since.

Thanks to bingo and volunteers like Sciortino, the men's club was able to give St. Gregory the Great School $25,000, plus $35,000 for the school's endowment and $1,000 in its teachers retirement fund last year. "The school benefits tremendously from their work," said O'Donnell, the principal.

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