WASHINGTON (December 2, 1997) -- Parishes nationwide will take up the annual Retirement Fund for Religious Collection December 13-14.
The national collection, whose theme this year is "A Lifetime of Service, A Moment of Thanks," helps offset the retirement needs for elderly sisters, brothers and priests in religious orders, where retirement is unfunded by $7.9 billion.
Begun in 1988, the collection has drawn about $25 million annually and is slated to continue through 2007. It is the most successful regular national collection and often involves members of religious orders testifying personally at parish Masses the weekend of the collection.
"Catholics never hesitate to show their gratitude," said Sister Mary Leahy, director of the Religious Retirement Office which oversees the collection. "People not only give generously to this appeal, many also send us letters with touching anecdotes about the sisters, brothers and priests who have changed their lives."
"The older people get the more they realize the importance of what happened to them in their formative years," Sister Leahy said. "Successful business people who graduated from Catholic schools, for example, often remark that priests, brothers and sisters taught them good work habits that stayed with them throughout their lives and helped them succeed. Businesswomen who graduated from women's high schools and colleges talk about holding leadership positions throughout their school days. People also remember the religious who were there for them in a moment of crisis in a hospital or at a social services center."
Sister Leahy cited the fact that 96 percent of the collection goes directly to supporting the elderly.
"When people hear that, they are astounded," she said. "There are few appeals which have only four percent of their entire collection used for production of fundraising materials, administration, mailing and communications."
The collection addresses a formidable challenge.
"The fact that the unfunded liability is in the billions can take your breath away," said Sister Leahy. "At the same time, thanks to people's generosity, we are way ahead of where we might be. Last year's collection was distributed among more than 500 congregations. It also provided an additional $1.7 million in supplemental and special assistance grants to orders with especially critical needs.
In years past, the vast majority of religious in an order were working and few were retired. Today the picture has changed.
"A quarter of the women religious and ten percent of the men religious are over 80," said Sister Leahy. "There are more religious over 80 than under 50. The median age for women religious is 68; for men religious, it is 61."
Because of the collection and all the other actions taken by institutes, religious orders can still devote resources to their ministries in the Church.
"Many orders now must look at their obligations to ministries and their obligations to their members," Sister Leahy said. "Religious do not want to base a decision about where to serve on people's ability to pay. But fewer and fewer religious orders are able to allow members to work for no remuneration. It is difficult to tell a member she has to bring in some income because there are bills facing the order."
Donations to the retirement fund allow religious to continue to serve others, not only their own order.
"Religious want to work in schools, parishes, hospitals, soup kitchens, clinics and other areas where they can be of service she said. "In many instances, religious institutes have done these works for years. They want to be able to continue doing so."
For decades, members of religious orders worked for low stipends or nothing and had no benefit packages. Until 1971, religious orders were not allowed into the Social Security program. Most who are in it now receive the lowest Social Security benefit. At the same time health care costs have skyrocketed and people are living longer.
"Between the changing demographics in religious orders and the changes in U.S. society, religious orders going into the Third Millennium face a financial challenge," Sister Leahy said. "Fortunately, the Catholic people are carrying this responsibility with them. Sisters who taught their students fifty years ago to trust in God, never expected that God would choose to assist them through these very same students."