Each year, near the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, a special charitable collection is solicited from Catholics throughout the Roman Church.
We receive a tithing envelope marked Peter’s Pence and our contributions are intended for use by the pope in his worldwide humanitarian efforts. Victims from natural disasters, wars, diseases and other catastrophic events receive assistance from Peter’s Pence. Economically strapped dioceses and churches, hospitals and Catholic education programs are also among recipients of these funds.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, annual donations from the Peter’s Pence collection have been significant. The 2010 contribution topped $67 million, according to the Vatican Information Service. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on Catholic giving through this yearly collection: “Peter’s Pence is the most characteristic expression of the participation of all the faithful in the Bishop of Rome’s charitable initiatives in favor of the universal Church. The gesture has not only a practical value, but also a strong symbolic one as a sign of communion with the pope and attention to the needs of one’s brothers; and therefore your service possesses a refined ecclesial character” (Address to the Members of the St. Peter Circle, Feb. 25, 2006).
A Venerable Tradition
As far back as the eighth century Anglo-Saxon kings of England were making donations or goodwill offerings to demonstrate their unity to the Church and assist the financial needs of the pope. There is evidence that the earliest donations were in part designated to help maintain a school in Rome used by English students and for a hostel used by English pilgrims visiting the Eternal City. In any case, the concept of sending money to support the pope’s work as the Vicar of Christ soon spread throughout all of England and then to Northern Europe. The popes grew accustomed to these donations, used the funds as necessary and came to expect the income on a recurring basis.
During the reigns of rulers such as Alfred the Great (r. 871-899), Canute the Great (r. 1015-1035) and William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087), the peoples of England and Scandinavia started being taxed in order to make what became an annual contribution to Rome. The tax was one penny for every house or family with possessions valued at over 30 pennies. In some Scandinavian countries, a penny was paid as a hearth tax or fire tax — that is, every family that lived in a home with a hearth paid one penny each year.
The so-called voluntary tax of one penny per family was collected and sent to the pope near the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul — thus the name Peter’s Pence. It was not uncommon for some of the monies to be diverted into the coffers of the king or even the bishops; further, the funds were sometimes used by rulers as a bargaining chip when dealing with Rome. Despite such interruptions, Peter’s Pence donations to the popes continued mostly every year from England and the countries of Northern Europe until the early 16th century and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547) ended the donation as part of his struggle with Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) over Henry’s petition for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his remarriage to Anne Boleyn. Defiantly, Henry broke with Rome, and among the subsequent acts passed by the English Parliament was the 1534 Act Forbidding Papal Dispensations and the Payment of Peter’s Pence. The law ended all funding for the “Bishop of Rome” and says, “all such uncharitable usurpations, exactions, pensions, censures, portions, and Peterpence, wont to be paid to the see of Rome, should utterly surcease, and never more be levied.”
Despite the mandate, certain locations in England remained true to the Catholic faith and continued submitting monetary support to the pope. During the brief reign of Queen Mary Tudor (r. 1553-1558), a staunch Catholic, contributions may have resumed but, overall, the 1534 Act of the English Parliament ended routine and organized payment of Peter’s Pence until the 19th century. Other countries continued contributions to Rome, but not necessarily under the name Peter’s Pence.
Revival of Peter’s Pence
During the reign of Pope Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), universal tithing through the Peter’s Pence collection was revived out of necessity. The middle of the 19th century saw much political chaos in Europe, especially in Italy. By late 1870, the new Italian government had annexed the Papal States and seized Rome as part of an effort to unify all of Italy. In response, Pope Pius IX declared himself “a prisoner of the Vatican,” and there his next four successors remained for the next 59 years. Catholics everywhere were outraged over the pope’s treatment. The image many people had of the pope’s voluntary imprisonment was not unlike their image of St. Peter in chains, as described in the Book of Acts (see 16:24). Some saw him like Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:20). Pictures surfaced that showed an image of Pope Pius behind bars, and there was a selling of pieces of straw indicating that the Pope was, or might be relegated to, sleeping on straw bedding.
At the beginning of these chaotic events, which significantly reduced the pope’s primary sources of revenue, countries around the world organized financial support for the Holy See. Voluntary collections from the Catholic faithful through a revived Peter’s Pence collection program brought the pope large sums of money. This effort was so successful — $4 million one year — that the Italian parliament debated ways to keep these funds from reaching the pope; but the parliament failed to act. For the most part, the Peter’s Pence contributions largely kept the papacy financially afloat until 1929, when Pope Pius XI and the Italian government made peace and the Pope released himself from self-imposed imprisonment. There is convincing evidence that along with the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility, the attention and rallying of Catholics to Pope Pius IX, both by prayers and the Peter’s Pence offering, were significant in elevating the esteem and prestige of the pope.
Peter’s Pence Today
The annual Peter’s Pence program, re-established in support of Blessed Pius IX, continues today through the dedicated giving of Catholics around the world. There is a distinction in how the funds are used now as opposed to the time of Pope Pius IX. During his papacy and earlier, the contributions were used by the pope as necessary, such as to support his day-to-day expenses, pay his staff, provide for his army and fund basic needs.
The focus of the collection today is primarily for the pope’s charitable efforts to help the poor, the homeless and those in need. The annual collection gives parishioners everywhere an opportunity to actively demonstrate unity with the pope, our personal support for his mission as Vicar of Christ and a way to help our needy brothers and sisters.
It is part of our Catholic identity. TCA