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CNA Staff, Nov 17, 2023 / 16:50 pm (CNA).
Religious communities in the U.S. lack the funds necessary to care for their elderly, the U.S. bishops said ahead of the annual collection for the religious retirement fund.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said in a statement this month that on the weekend of Dec. 9–10, “participating dioceses will take up the annual collection that benefits approximately 24,000 elderly religious sisters, brothers, and religious order priests across the United States.”
“Numerous religious communities in the United States are experiencing challenges with providing for their elderly members and are confronting a sizable disparity between available funds and the costs of care,” the bishops said.
The bishops said the Retirement Fund for Religious collection is “vital” for supporting thousands of elderly religious men and women around the country who have “insufficient” funds on which to retire.
John Knutsen, the director of the U.S. bishops’ National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO), told CNA this week that the vast majority of religious communities lack the funds to support the retired religious.
“Just over 6% of the communities that provide data to us are adequately funded for retirement,” he said. “Forty-two percent of them have 25 or fewer members.”
“For most of their lives, elder religious worked for little or no pay,” Knutsen said. “There were no 401(k) plans or pensions, and what stipends they received were very modest,” he said.
“And also of course they take a vow of poverty,” he said. “Religious in a sense never really retire. They often remain very active in ministry as they are able.”
High numbers of elderly retirees, relative to younger members, are helping to drive the retirement shortfalls, Knutsen said. “Overall, those religious who are past age 70 currently outnumber those under age 70 by nearly 3 to 1,” he told CNA. He pointed out that “so many members are living longer now.”
“Religious communities are financially responsible for the support and care of all their members,” Knutsen said. “Often they can’t rely on private donations alone, and their finances are managed separately from the parish and diocesan structures of the Church. As a result, hundreds of religious communities face a wide gap between the needs of their elder members and the funds they have to support them.”
The retirement fund “exists to help them bridge that gap,” he said.
In addition to direct financial assistance, Knutsen said, the annual fund “underwrites educational programming, services, and resources that enable religious communities to evaluate and prepare for long-term retirement, so we actively assist them with all their retirement planning needs.”
“We can help them assess their financial situation now and plan for the future,” Knutsen said. “And that may be looking at property issues, it may be looking at finances, it may be looking at their cost of care. Maybe a community’s cost of care is significantly higher than the national average, for example. So we can provide consultants to help them find ways to bring that down.”
However the challenges are addressed, Knutsen said, the annual collection is “a huge part of it.”
“The collection has been around since 1988,” he said. “It’s an enormous source of support for them as well, and it’s only possible because so many generous donors have been so steadfast in their support of this collection over the years.”
The USCCB in its press release this month noted that, traditionally, Catholic religious have “dedicated their lives to Church ministries such as parishes, schools, and health care institutions, usually with little to no compensation.”
“Consequently, a significant number currently have insufficient retirement funds, combined with escalating health care costs,” the press release said.
The U.S. bishops established the Retirement Fund for Religious collection, the press release noted, to “address this serious retirement funding need among U.S. religious orders.” Last year the NRRO raised more than $27 million to that end.
Catholics in the U.S. have donated nearly $1 billion to the fund since its inception, the bishops said; more than $800 million has been “distributed to support the day-to-day care of thousands of elderly sisters, brothers, and religious order priests.”
Knutsen said religious men and women “have been, and continue to be, on the front lines in so many ways, serving everyone, and they deserve to be cared for in their elder years.”
“By supporting the Retirement Fund for Religious through the annual parish collection,” he said, “we can show our appreciation for the lifetimes of service given by senior religious and gratefully recognize their great dedication to the communities in which they served.”