30 October 2010

On the Question of Relief for Former Hermit Intercessors and the Fund for Retired Religious

Perhaps this should be two separate posts, but the first issue segues into the second and also helps explain my ambivalence or outright antipathy to the first question. For that reason, and for now at least, I will keep these together. Also, if my opinions on the first question (supporting the former Hermit Intercessors) changes, I will post that as soon as I can.

I admit to having felt torn on the issue of financially supporting those 50 some former Hermit Intercessors who are now staying at a retreat house. (Temporary assistance while they transitioned to ordinary lay life was not a problem at all, and I was pleased to see the Archdiocese of Omaha assisting in this. Ongoing support was the issue.) However, these former HIOL have published a letter now appealing for assistance and they put their needs at $25,000 per month to take care of rent (for a place large enough to house all 56 of them), utilities, food, basic living expenses, etc.

They also list things they will be needing "once they are settled" like computers, printers, furniture, cars, trucks, gift cards (to buy whatever they need), phone cards, etc. And I find my ambivalence changing to outright antipathy. I wonder, for instance, just why the rest of the laity (because after all, these are lay persons who are no longer in the same category as groups like the Knights of Columbus even) should be footing the bill for this? Further, there is no indication that this is a merely temporary situation, no notice that the members of this lay community will be working to support themselves or whether they will continue to need to live from the charity of others indefinitely, etc. Granted, the group claims a couple of thousand other laity who were Companions or Associates of the group and if they want to assist and are able to do so, then they should, but I honestly cannot get my head or my heart around the idea of the laity in general supporting a group of other lay people in this way who are not, never were, and may never be a religious congregation with public vows.

At the very least I personally would want a LOT more information about what went on to cause the breakup, how the HIOL have been supported in the past (because, God knows, their campus and nearby holdings hardly speak of poverty or fledgling communities to me), and what the Archdiocese itself is doing for them (and not just financially, but in terms of what could become a kind of fast-tracking them to public association status again and why. Again, this is my own ambivalence speaking). I would also want some answers about prudent provisions for the future and why they weren't made --- as is the case usually in any actual religious congregation for candidates, novices and anyone NOT perpetually professed in public (canonical) vows. (For instance, why has everything been turned over to the IOL, Inc before public vows were even allowed much less made? Why was nothing set aside (perhaps in some escrow account) in case a person should need to leave the group for some reason? Does the IOL, Inc have NO legal obligations to members who are now destitute? Do they plan to exercise any MORAL responsibility for helping their former members transition to ordinary lay life? And beyond this, why is this smaller group NOT planning to transition to ordinary lay life UNTIL they can find a way to regroup and support themselves? It would certainly be expected of any other lay group in the Church.)

So, at the risk of seeming more heartless than I already may let me remind readers of the ordinary circumstances of consecrated, publicly vowed religious men and women in the church (including contemplative nuns and monks). You already know that diocesan hermits are expected to support themselves in some way and can expect no financial assistance from their dioceses. We routinely sign a waiver of claim at perpetual profession which says clearly we 1) will maintain financial independence and 2) will not expect the diocese to be responsible for our actions or expenses. In fact, the ability to do this is a central piece of discerning a vocation to diocesan eremitism, and the inability to do so argues against the person having such a vocation at this point in time. But it is a widespread misunderstanding that religious congregations (institutes of consecrated life with public vows and obligations) are actually SUPPORTED by the Church. This is something I hear even today despite the number of times I have heard it addressed. Religious congregations generally live from the support of the working members, and as the median age of congregations has risen and the number of younger Sisters and Brothers has declined, it has become harder and harder to stretch these salaries to support the entire community and the ministry they do. It is estimated that by 2019 the number of religious above the age of 70 will outnumber those below it by 4:1. (By the way, this whole dynamic is one of the reasons communities are unable to accept disabled or otherwise unwell persons, and a piece of the reason older vocations are only cautiously accepted by some congregations.)

Some retired members receive social security (though it should be remembered that religious never paid into the system until around 1972 --- given the fact that they each earned on average far less than $75 per month, they simply were too poor and there were no provisions in law for those with public vows of poverty). Some receive Medicare or Medicaid for medical expenses, and some may be eligible for SSI, a supplemental payment of @$800 a month which, while usually available to the disabled, is meant to help the truly destitute live when they cannot draw ordinary social security benefits or the amount is VERY low. (In CA, for instance the current SSI payment for any disabled person is $840, a combined amount from State and Federal government, which is meant to pay for ALL needs the individual has each month: rent, utilities, food, transportation, clothes, insurance, etc.) In other words, it is their entire income except that those who can work a bit are allowed to earn $65. Beyond this every dollar must be returned to the State or Federal government because it is seen to indicate there is no real need for the SSI payment in such cases. I will tell you that ALL gifts of money, no matter how small, COUNT AGAINST this income, and religious congregations are assiduously honest in accounting for such gifts. So, if Sister needs a new sweater, for instance, friends are asked to give her a sweater rather than the money to buy one.

Some people believe that religious congregations in such circumstances deserve it. If they had really lived their vocations, really lived as religious and not "given up their habits, etc" they would have lots of younger members to support the older retired and infirm ones. But this is patent nonsense (not to mention a rather pagan way of looking at reality). These are congregations of religious men and women who have literally given their lives for the Church and World and are now struggling to continue their lives and work in that same Church and world. They receive no direct financial assistance from the Church in any way whatsoever and NEVER HAVE (except of course whatever the laity have given!!). Meanwhile, despite being the teachers, nurses, social workers, spiritual directors, pastoral ministers, etc etc etc, of most adults in the Church they are either forgotten or their real need (which includes the need of the congregation as a whole to live and minister on) remains largely disregarded. Once a year there is a collection in each parish benefiting a fund for relief of retired religious. Over the years they have collected money, which, when parcelled out averages a one time payment of about $640 for every religious man and woman.

So, I am not saying do not contribute to support the former HIOL, though I would certainly suggest you demand more answers and information before doing so. I am saying that there are thousands and thousands of retired men and women religious who have lived public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for their entire adult lives and whose congregations now need assistance, not simply to support and care for these members BUT TO CONTINUE MINISTERING EFFECTIVELY TO THE CHURCH AND WORLD WHILE THEY DO SO. And this is the really crucial part of things. These retired religious do not want assistance for themselves, and their congregations are more than happy to provide for their own Brothers and Sisters. As in any family, it is a labor of love and familial responsibility. But doing so (not to mention the anxiety attached to doing so) can detract from the capacity of the congregation to minister and to thrive as a whole, and this is something we all have a responsibility to help prevent if possible.

The bottom line here? PLEASE consider supporting the Retirement Fund for Religious. It is not simply a worthy cause, but one which contributes to the health and vitality of every established religious congregation in the Church. Check out their website for important FAQ's and more detailed explanations and data than I can give!