(November 8, 2004) -- The appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious (RFR), now in its 17th year, has generated a greater response than any annual appeal in U.S. Catholic Church history. The more than $440 million that the appeal has raised helps to ensure appropriate care for almost 40,000 Catholic sisters, brothers, and religious order priests who are now past age 70.
The crisis in unfunded retirement became evident in the early 1970s. Catholic schools, sponsored and operated primarily by religious orders, were educating more than 10 percent of the student population in the United States. Catholic hospitals were becoming the largest group of not-for-profit hospitals in the nation. But the salaries and stipends to religious were earmarked primarily for good works, new ministries, and training and education that would ensure adequate staffing and administration for ministries rather than retirement.
The care of elderly members had been ensured for generations by younger members who entered religious life. Church and diocesan pension plans did not include religious institutes, which are organized separately. Today, however, elderly religious who are retired from paid ministry far outnumber wage-earning religious. Health care costs have skyrocketed and the number of elderly religious in assisted living or nursing facilities has risen dramatically. Many religious institutes sell their motherhouses to meet retirement needs. Today, retired religious receive on average $3,874 a year in Social Security benefits. (The average individual benefit for the general population is $10,836.)
In 1988, church officials launched the Retirement Fund for Religious. The National Religious Retirement Office, which sponsors the appeal, has distributed more than 96 percent of donations as grants to religious institutes. Special grant awards are used to meet emergency needs and to fund projects aimed at cost-cutting.
NRRO is sponsored by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). With a database about elderly religious that is now unmatched in the U.S., the office consults with religious institutes to conduct needs assessments and design financial strategies; it assists communities in imminent crisis, and distributes information about the unfunded retirement liability of religious institutes to parishes and media.
Nationwide, 172 of the country's 195 dioceses participate in the RFR appeal. Eight others sponsor local appeals.