A recent study, which is drawing growing attention through an Associated Press story, warns of an impending financial crisis for many U.S. Catholic religious orders. The study from the US Bishops Office of National Religious Retirement warns that the large number of aging religious – especially religious sisters – along with a continuing drop in new vocations is leading to a massive financial shortfall for the care of the retired. Many are saying, however, that an answer to the problem may not be merely financial, but also spiritual support for new vocations.
The report, which has not yet been released publicly, claims that tens of thousands of religious are now over age 70 in the United States and are retiring from their active apostolates. Religious sisters make up 82 percent of current religious retirees.
While billions of dollars have been saved, the report says, there is still an unfunded future liability of $8.7 billion for current religious. The financial hole is projected to exceed $20 billion by 2023.
The study, compiled in June, puts spending for retiree care in 2005 at $926 million. The Office of National Religious Retirement believes only four percent of sisters are adequately funded for retirement. The problem is worse in smaller orders, and hundreds of orders have been forced to sell off assets to cover expenses.
The situation has also been discussed in a new book, "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" (Doubleday), by former New York Times religion editor Kenneth Briggs.
The problem first gained national attention in 1985, when John Fialka published a report in the Wall Street Journal. Fellow Catholics contacted him with donations, leading Fialka to establish SOAR (Support Our Aging Religious). Last year, the organization raised $1.4 million.
The U.S. bishops held their first annual collection for the cause in 1988 under the new retirement office, which also plans to increase training for orders on how to manage their assets.
When Briggs completed his research, aid collections totaled $480 million, generating more than twice the receipts from the next largest special appeal. This result, he says, shows the high regard Catholics have for religious retirees.
Lack of vocations nationwide
While a financial solution is certainly needed, the problem reportedly stems from the increasing number of retirees and fewer younger members to support them, the AP states. The number of religious women in the U.S. has been steadily decreasing since 1965, when they numbered 179,954. By 2005, this figure more than halved to 68,634.
While religious orders have traditionally received a great deal of support from donations from members of the Church, a large portion of the income of many orders comes from the income stemming from the work done by younger members of the community. The lack of any younger vocations is one of the greatest causes for concern for many orders.
Wellsprings of hope
Yet, despite studies detailing the lack of vocations in religious orders nationwide Mother M. Regina Pacis Coury, FSGM says that there are signs of hope in numerous orders. Mother Regina serves as Vice-chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), an organization composed of major superiors of US religious communities, which was founded to promote religious life in the United States. Mother Regina Pacis said that a great number of the orders which belong to the CMSWR have been experiencing growth.
Far from being fazed by the report, Mother Regina Pacis told CNA that many orders, such as her own Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, simply continue to focus on the life they consecrated themselves to. “We remain grounded in prayer - through such things as the liturgy of the hours, the celebration of the Eucharist, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament - our life of community, and our apostolate (or work in the world).”
Something seems to be working. While the national numbers above show a decrease in religious vocations, Mother Regina Pacis said that orders such as the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville, the Sisters of Life, the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, the Missionaries of Charity, and the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles (among many others) have been experiencing tremendous growth in their communities.
Sister Mary Emily, O.P., Vocation Director of the Dominicans of Nashville said that her order has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, seeing over 100 new vocations in that period. Not only that, but there are currently an additional 80 women in formation with an average of 15 entering each year. The median age of her community is now 36 and the average age of those women entering is 24.
“The young women who enter the community are talented, wholesome women who want to sacrifice their lives for the Church. They have heard the call to “Come follow Me” and they do it very willingly and very joyfully,” Sister Mary Emily told CNA.
Mother Regina Pacis said that several religious orders listed on the CMSWR website get thousands of hits each week. “This shows that people are still searching.”
The most important thing for Catholics to do, Mother Regina Pacis said, is to pray for vocations. Mother said that, “we must keep in mind the words of (Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation) Vita Consecrata, which says, that everyone is called to work for vocations.
“We pray especially that parents will be open to the vocations of their children and be supportive if they are called to the religious life,” Mother Regina Pacis said, “It is a sacrifice, but we pray that they will be generous.”
At the US Bishops Conference Sr. Andree Fries, the 64-year-old executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, also remains hopeful facing the financial shortfall.
"The impact is more minimal than one might think," because members of orders "are very much about mission" and are not worrying about their future needs, she told the AP.
While many of the orders will be faced with difficulties in the future, Sr. Fries said she is not discouraged, “because religious are can-do people."
For more information on the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the many orders who belong to their organization see their website at www.cmswr.org