WASHINGTON (May 15, 2000) -- Donations to the latest Religious Retirement Collection reached $31.4 million, the largest amount ever collected in an annual appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious.
"We are moving from a national crisis to a manageable concern," said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). "The bishops and religious of this nation are heartened by people's efforts in this regard."
The collection achieved the extraordinary level as 114 dioceses increased over last year their gifts to support retired members of religious orders of sisters, brothers and priests. The previous high was reached last year when the collection, taken up in parishes in 1998, drew $30,236,221.
In this latest collection, which was funded by collections taken up in parishes in 1999, more than one million dollars each was donated by four dioceses: Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati and Detroit.
The windfall will enable the fund to distribute this June $25 million in basic grants to more than 490 religious institutes, representing 42,117 senior members.
Additional grants totaling $3 million will be awarded later in the year to orders with special needs.
Bishop Fiorenza said Catholics responded as soon as they heard of the crisis and have given steadily and generously.
"Catholics learned about this need in the late '80s and took the dramatic position of standing with the orders who unstintingly serve our church. Generous donations have made a strong statement that U.S. Catholics never will forget all that these elderly religious do for them now and did for many years before. No other church collection has been supported as consistently and generously as this one."
Significant progress in addressing the retirement crisis has come, thanks to the collection and other planning efforts. For example, 67 percent of men's and women's religious communities have shown a decrease in their unfundedness between 1993 and 1998.
Between 1993 and 1998 the percentage of women's orders whose retirement plans were 61-100 percent funded rose from 35 to 45 percent, meaning that 15.5 percent of women religious have retirements that are 61 to 100 percent funded. The percentage of men's communities whose retirement plans were 61-100 percent funded rose from 21 to 41 percent, meaning that 12 percent of the men religious have retirements that are 61-100 percent funded.
Contributions come primarily through a collection in parishes on the second weekend in Advent. The fund also has been enhanced by almost $2 million in bequests and gifts received throughout the year from generous individuals and organizations.
The collection operates with low overhead. It uses less than two percent of its donations to promote and administer the collection for the religious, who have a $7 billion unfunded retirement liability, according to a 1997 survey by Arthur Andersen Inc.
Sister Mary Leahy, National Director of the National Religious Retirement Office, credited the work of vicars for religious and diocesan coordinators who organize local efforts and arrange for religious to speak at Masses, a key to the appeal's success.
"This collection could not succeed without the coordinators," said Sister Leahy, herself a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana. "They are vital to linking our efforts to the local bishops, pastors and parishioners."
"We are especially grateful to bishops and pastors who invite religious to address people from the pulpit," she said. "People in the pew see who they're helping."
Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr, NCCB General Secretary, said the response shows gratitude.
"Catholics and non-Catholics have been helped by religious men and women and they remember this," he said. "These religious built hospitals and schools. They thought of themselves last. Their extra funds went into their ministries, everything from pre-schools and universities to inner-city clinics and hospital systems. They have touched and continue to touch people at every level of society."
To date, the appeal has collected $318,427,337 to offset retirement needs of religious. With the Year 2000 grants, the Retirement Office will have distributed $308,126,213 to religious orders for the care of their elderly and infirm members. As a result, Arthur Andersen recently reported that the unfunded liability of religious orders has seen its first decrease since the collection was launched in 1988.
Money is distributed to retirement funds of U.S. religious institutes according to a formula based on the ages, membership and level of retirement needs. Grants to individual orders have ranged from $880,000 to $300. Collection funds also have been used to meet emergency needs and to fund projects aimed at cost-cutting.
Church officials launched the appeal when it became obvious that funds available to U.S. religious orders for retirement were insufficient. Simultaneously, the religious communities began to cut costs and raise additional monies by selling property, converting structures to maintain them more economically and developing inter-community efforts for cost-efficient care of their elderly members.
Signs of the crisis began to show in the early 1970s as health care costs skyrocketed and demographics of religious orders shifted, leaving more older than younger members. The resulting situation precludes wage earners in religious orders today from being able to support all their retired members.
Some religious collect Social Security. However, since members of religious orders were only allowed into the nation's Social Security system in the 1970s, they could not accrue significant benefits. The average annual Social Security payment to a retired religious is $3,329.41.
The latest appeal was launched in late 1999 by the NCCB, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The organizations sponsor the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington to aid religious orders in dealing with retirement issues.
Nationwide, 171 of the country's 192 dioceses participate in the National Retirement Fund for Religious collection. Those which do not participate directly operate their own fund drives or had started local collections before the national appeal began.