By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published December 9, 2010 | En Español
One of the traditions that I have established since becoming the Archbishop of Atlanta—and one that has proven to be a great source of encouragement and insight for me and I trust for those who participate in this custom—is an annual gathering of the provincial leadership of the religious communities currently serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. There are 17 women religious congregations and 17 men religious congregations currently represented in the archdiocese. (I think that identical representation is a happy coincidence.)
Each year we begin with the celebration of Mass, an enjoyable lunch, followed by open conversation regarding life here in the archdiocese as well as matters of interest and importance for those in Consecrated Life within this local Church. The participants are the leaders or the appointed delegates of the leadership of the religious communities serving here.
Some religious communities in the archdiocese are represented by only one or two members, while other communities may have a dozen or more, but each community brings a special blessing to this local Church, serving as teachers, catechists, pastoral workers, spiritual directors, health care providers or other professional servants to the people here in North Georgia. We would be greatly diminished without any of them.
One of the topics that surfaced during our most recent meeting was the issue of the retirement needs of men and women religious—not only those currently serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta but religious throughout our nation since the religious here belong to national and international communities and have served in places throughout our nation and beyond. The ages of religious are, for the most part, disproportionate. There are many more older and retirement age religious than there are young and fully employed religious. In the past, the younger members provided the income sources for most of the older religious. As the number of retired or semi-retired religious rose and outpaced the numbers of younger members entering the community, the unbalanced revenues exacerbated the problem for many communities.
In 1986, the leadership of our religious communities partnered with the bishops of the United States of America to begin to address this concern. Since 1988 a national collection has been taken up in all of the dioceses of the United States specifically to provide for the retirement needs of our religious women and men. Since that time more than $582 million has been distributed to religious communities in the United States. While that amount is sizeable, it is not nearly enough since the increasing costs of providing retirement benefits for elderly religious continues to outpace even the extraordinary generosity of our people. It now costs over $56,000 a year to provide assisted care for a single retired religious, and each year there are more retired religious that need such care.
To make matters even worse, many religious were not enrolled in Social Security until very late in their employment careers and even then because of the meager scale of their stipends, they did not generate much in the way of benefits. These men and women are those who taught us, cared for us in Catholic hospitals, provided the Church’s extraordinary witness and service to the poor, and even now continue to pray for us. Last year in 2009, the Archdiocese of Atlanta made a generous offering of over $292,000 to this national collection, which raised more than $23 million for the retirement needs of our religious. The needs of our religious are even greater than the generous response of our people.
Some of you have told me of a special devotion that you have to a particular community and you may wish to make a designated gift to a specific religious community because of a personal history with that community. I applaud such generosity. All of us, no matter where we might have grown up and been served by the labors of religious women and men in the United States, should recall with deep affection and gratitude the witness of these heroic people. Such fondness and gratitude can and should be expressed by making a generous contribution to the Collection for Retired Religious that will be taken up in our parishes within the next few weeks. Some religious communities, in fact, are better situated to care for their elderly than others, and therefore this national collection is distributed according to the greatest and most pressing needs as they are determined by the leadership of the religious communities themselves. This national collection represents a unified opportunity for Catholics in the United States to help those men and women who laid the foundation of a strong Catholic community on these shores, to say thanks, and to assure those in Consecrated Life that we have not forgotten the lessons they provided for us.