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.

At St. Pius X School in Norfolk, where school policy requires the operating budget to run solely on tuition and the subsidy paid by the parish, bingo money still makes a big difference.

"What bingo did for this school in the last five years is make it possible to air-condition the building, an absolute necessity given the age of the building and how hot our springs and falls can be,'' said the principal, Sister Renee Murphy.

Bingo generates enormous gross revenue but brings with it whopping overhead costs, even with volunteers running the games. Groups that don't have a gym or parish hall must pay $1,800 to $2,700 a week to rent a bingo hall. Cash prizes to winners are also expensive. St. Gregory's pays out $8,500 every week.

Parish school administrators--none of four interviewed were aware of Sullivan's stand on bingo--differ on how hard it would be for their school to cope without the games.

At Christ the King School, principal Miriam Cotton is grateful for bingo proceeds because they remove the need for "nickel-and-diming parents with different fundraisers."

But she also considers bingo an undependable source of income, vulnerable as it is to the whims and pocketbooks of players. Eliminating it would pose a challenge to "think outside the box" about new ways to raise money, she said.

But such thinking could highlight some interesting realities about Catholics' attitude toward giving money to their church.

Matthew Paratore, secretary general of the International Catholic Stewardship Council in Washington, D.C., said that generations ago, many Catholics in America came from European countries where government supported the church financially. These immigrants often didn't understand that in the United States churches had to be self-sustaining.

"When they came here and heard the priest say, 'Give generously,' they said, 'For what?' and there was immediate resentment," Paratore said. "Consequently, what they did was, they threw in the basket whatever they had in their pocket and that came down to a dollar a month."

Decades later, some Catholics persist in offering no more than pocket change.

Catholic households in the diocese of Richmond give an average of $9.19 a week to their parish, according to John Barrett, the diocesan finance officer.

Comparable figures for Protestant church members aren't available. But Dean Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America, said research shows that Catholics give less money to churches than mainline Protestants, who give less than evangelical Protestants.

One reason is that Catholics, unlike Protestants, typically aren't asked to pledge a definite sum each year.

"Pledging causes people to reflect on their giving as a percentage of total income. It makes them plan for a total year, rather than relying on what they just want to give that day," Hoge said.

Compared with a stewardship program that includes pledging, "bingo is a poor way of gathering funds,'' he said. ``The main thing it does is provide a social community for older females.'' Churches and schools that don't have bingo typically say they're enriched by avoiding it.

"We don't need bingo," said Msgr. William L. Pitt, who referred to it as "fundraising out of other people's pockets." He eliminated the game when he arrived at Catholic High School as its principal 10 years ago.

Most bingo players, he said, weren't part of the school community. In contrast, fund-raisers that replaced bingo, such as an annual auction, promote participation by students, parents and faculty. They also raise more money than bingo did.

Church of the Holy Spirit in Virginia Beach abandoned bingo about two years after the parish formed in 1975. Parishioner Myron Tauchen said members studied what the Bible said about Christian stewardship.

``They decided that instead of having bingo, asking the public to support our church, we should support our own church,'' he said.

Holy Spirit emphasizes the importance of contributing time and talent, as well as money, to sustain the church and its ministries. That approach, members say, encourages greater participation in church life, which in turn makes parishioners feel more ownership of the parish -- an attitude that stimulates financial contributions.

``I used to be one of those Catholics, when I first joined, who'd throw $5 in the plate and consider I was doing a good job,'' Tauchen said.

But Holy Spirit's culture of stewardship changed his priorities. ``Instead of being the last check we write, now it's the first,'' he said of his family's church offering.

Bishop Sullivan would love to see all Catholic churches and organizations follow Holy Spirit's lead. But he won't order an end to bingo; he'd rather use ``gentle persuasion.''

``We're very affluent,'' he said, referring to the Catholic community. ``We have all the money we need. The problem is, half is still in our wallets.''

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