A Catholic sister who was my home-room teacher in the two years I spent in parochial high school on Long Island occasionally would send my classmates and me into the day with the thought: Love God and worry about nothing else.
That wasn't much help getting me through first period geometry, but the rest of the day, and every one since, I found myself agreeing with Sister Mary Franceline. She lived by that counsel herself, as did the 20 or so other sisters residing in the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent across the street from St. Dominic High School.
This Saturday evening in Washington, some Catholic sisters and their friends -- including members of the Senate and House -- are coming together to offer a minor revision: Love God and worry about nothing else -- except a secure retirement.
The meeting is the fourth annual fund-raising dinner of SOAR -- "Support Our Aging Religious." Large numbers of the nuns -- and lay brothers too -- who staffed the church's schools, hospitals and other social programs are now retired. They are broke and caught in actuarial traps with no adequate pensions, annuities, retirement benefits or dividends.
Nearly two-thirds of the nation's 112,000 sisters are over 60 years old. The average age is 66, with the median rising annually. More than 1,000 sisters are believed to be on welfare. The distress ranges from convents lacking funds for wheelchairs or infirmary equipment to a religious order in New York that couldn't pay a mortician for the increasing number of funerals for elderly sisters.
SOAR, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 and based in Silver Spring, raised $548,000 in its first three years and dispensed it to 55 religious congregations. More than 100 grant applications are in for 1990 funding, from fire safety improvements, therapy equipment, infirmary beds and wheelchairs to nurse call-bell systems.
A common image of nuns from the old school is that they were repressed spinsters skilled only in knuckle-rapping. That's not my recollection. The sisters I knew in the 1950s or met last month are as selfless as any group of altruists can possibly be.
Elderly nuns are in retirement binds because, unlike the male hierarchy who controlled the collection plate, the sisters put neither their trust in money nor their money in trust. They were told to think of penance, not pensions. Instead of salaries, they had salvation. They worked for less than the widow's mite, educating everyone from the convent school daughters of Henry Ford II to the poorest of the black poor in mission schools in the Mississippi Delta.
Today's church hierarchy is breaking no promises to the retired sisters. It never made any. Pastors of parishes gave them nests -- convents -- but no nest eggs. As teachers in Catholic schools in the 1940s and '50s, the sisters were cheap labor. They did take a vow of poverty, but it's turned out to be a vow of destitution with few new takers. Less than 2 percent of today's sisters are younger than 30, which means the elderly have few young hands to help them. The convent of the Holy Ghost has become the ghost-town convent. Younger women are willing to be of service, but not in Vatican-run structures that limit decision-making to men.
Pre-Vatican II Catholicism -- stolid, vocation-rich and with no one sassing Rome -- had little warning of the economic crisis that lay ahead in the 1980s and '90s for its religious orders. Money may talk, but the person of faith mustn't listen. It said so in scripture. "I have counted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth," St. Paul wrote. In St. Luke: "Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for life does not consist in possessions."
From the literal interpretation of those and similar texts, the specter of a false conflict was raised: either almighty God or the almighty dollar was to be worshipped.
The current need, according to SOAR, is for more than $5.6 billion. The Catholic bishops, who issued a recent pastoral letter on how to reform the U.S. economy, are beginning to look at the economy of the convent. For the past two years, the third Sunday in December has been set aside for an annual collection for religious order retirement needs -- $26 million was raised in the first year, $22 million the next. The last sum translates into $221 a year for all sisters over 50.
In the Senate and House, the sisters have won all but divine intervention in their crisis. Four powers who were taught by Catholic nuns in grade school -- Thomas Foley (Sisters of the Holy Name), George Mitchell (Ursulines), Pete Domenici (Sisters of Charity) and Dan Rostenkowski (Sisters of Notre Dame) -- have kicked in generously themselves and have written a joint letter asking others also to pony up to SOAR.
If all the alumni of Catholic schools turned out as well as those four -- turned out well because they remember and are grateful -- the way to heaven for the sisters may still be heaven.