WASHINGTON (November 8, 2001) -- Martin Sheen, award-winning star of the hit TV series West Wing, has lent his name to help retired nuns, brothers and priests in religious orders.
Sheen, a graduate of Catholic schools in Dayton, Ohio, provided support by videotaping public service TV and radio ads in order to promote the annual religious retirement collection.
The collection, which this year will be taken up December 8-9, benefits retired members of religious orders -- sisters, brothers and priests -- who have an unfunded retirement liability estimated at $6.1 billion
Sheen, a devout Catholic, is known for both his role in NBC's West Wing and the stance he has taken on many justice issues. He is frequently asked to lend his name to those in need but can do so only occasionally because of time constraints. He wanted to help the retired religious, he said, out of a sense of respect and admiration for the Marianist Brothers and Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur, who taught him.
"They had a profound impact," he said. "I've been inspired and nourished by them. Their families were like our families; their fathers were immigrants and laborers. They understood that if you went to school without meeting a certain standard of 'clean,' it might be because you had no hot water. They never made a big deal of their charity. If you didn't have money for a lunch ticket, they just gave you one. No big deal."
After the taping, Sheen asked Sister Andrée Fries, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, about the needs the collection meets.
"I'm glad to help," he said, adding, "I hope the checks come pouring in."
Sister Fries, a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood of O'Fallon, Missouri, thanked him for the assistance.
"Mr. Sheen gave his time and talent in the midst of a tight taping schedule," she said. "He was incredibly busy but still made time because he remembered how much his early teachers had helped him. In that way he's like so many of the people who help us."
Sheen taped the ads in Washington, May 1, the 20th anniversary of his return to the Church.
"On this date in 1981, I was in Paris. For years before that, I'd done a lot of drinking, but that day, something happened to me. I went out on the streets and found myself knocking on the door of a church, which turned out to be the only church in the city with an English-speaking pastor."
Sheen's TV character, President Bartlett, often uses religious and Biblical references, and the actor speaks with ease and passion about Scripture.
"When you read those passages, when you understand what Christ did, you see that he was very radical," Sheen said. "He wasn't actually well known or recognized by the authorities. They had to find a friend who would betray him because they didn't know what he looked like. But he had managed to make them very uncomfortable."
Risk-taking is a distinguishing characteristic of Christ and his followers, Sheen noted.
"This faith has to cost you something," he said. "Otherwise, what's it all about?"
There are an estimated 35,000 Sisters and 5,000 brothers and priests religious over the age of 70 in the United States.
Sister Fries said the needs of religious are pressing.
"Hundreds of religious institutes have depended on this collection over the past 13 years," she said. "We also are finding other religious congregations who are just learning about assistance
available to them for the health care and living costs of their members who are past retirement age."
Of more than 70,000 women religious in the country, 53 percent are now past 70; of the more than 15,000 men, 35 percent are past 70. Total cost of care for them in independent, assisted living and skill nursing homes in the year 2000 was $718 million. The annual Social Security benefit received by an individual religious is less than $4,000.
Since the appeal was established in 1988, the Religious Retirement Collection has collected $351 million, making it the most successful regular collection in the history of the Church in the United States. "Religious congregations in the United States work in numerous ministries," she said. "The religious work in everything from schools, houses of prayer, and parishes to soup kitchens, AIDS hospices, and day care centers," said Sister Fries. "They continue to respond to the physical and spiritual needs all about them and are grateful that the entire Church is willing to help them care for their elderly members."
"American Catholics have benefited beyond measure and they generously support the NRRO mission," she said.
Signs of the impending retirement crisis became evident in the 1970s as health care costs skyrocketed, demographics shifted in religious orders, and the number of wage earners declined. Religious orders instituted several cost-cutting measures, including the establishment of collaborative health facilities with other institutes, sale of property and improved financial planning.
The Religious Retirement Collection was launched in 1988 by the U.S. bishops and leaders of national associations of religious orders.
The PSAs will be made available to TV and radio stations from the NRRO through coordinators of the collection in dioceses nationwide.
Anyone seeking information on the National Religious Retirement Office can write or call
3211 4th St., NE
Washington, Dc 20017-1194