Completion and Legacy

Some Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life (collectively “communities”) in the U.S. and around the world are facing critical points in their life-cycle. Given the current demographics, it is likely that many communities are coming to the completion of their historical life-cycle and will be unable to provide canonical leadership for themselves in the coming years and decades.

In the United States, the last of the large cohorts of members of religious communities are moving from active ministry into retirement or semi-retirement. According to projections of the National Religious Retirement Office, 90% of the women religious will be over the age of seventy. While the demographics will vary from one community to another, a community of fifty members would have five members under the age of seventy, most of them in their sixties. Some have opined that between 75% and 90% of current religious communities will cease to exist in the next decades. In the United States, and in many developed nations, most religious communities are becoming older and grayer, while remaining spiritually vibrant. This ending of the life-cycle is not failure or defeat; it is a natural process in the life-death-resurrection cycle of the Paschal Mystery. As one life ends, another is born, as one form of religious life ends, another is born. Only if we “cling desperately” to what is passing away, will the end be a defeat according to Johannes Baptist Metz. Freedom comes when we say yes to what is, give thanks for what has been, and prepare responsibly for what is coming.

An understanding of the needs of completing communities can provide for the orderly transition of ministries to other oversight arrangements. It can help to ensure the suitable care of its last members, to pass on the spiritual patrimony of the community, its ministries, and its legacy, and to provide for the disposition of any remaining temporal goods. It can help to think of this orderly transition in four functional areas that require attention and transition: sponsorship, eldercare, administration and canonical leadership. Many communities are well into planning for the transition of sponsorship and eldercare, and there are resources to help with this. More and more communities are turning their attention to transitioning of administration and of canonical leadership.

As these transitions occur, it is important to attend to the community’s legacy. Communities coming to the end of their life should provide for the eventual distribution of any temporal goods that remain after the life of the last member. They may do this through civilly valid means, e.g. a corporate dissolution clause or a charitable trust established for the care of the members and for the final distribution of any remaining assets. It is important to understand the civil and canonical requirements for this distribution. Some assume that the local bishop will receive the assets of a community, however, canon law has a preference for the assets to be distributed according to the spirit and charism of the founders and of donors. Legacy planning and establishing the means for the distribution of the communities’ assets will ensure an orderly transition.

February’s webcast will review the process of coming to completion, preparation and planning for the transition of governance, and especially examine planning for the legacy of the community. Register here.

As always, feel free to contact me if I can be of assistance to you and your community.

Sincerely,
Amy Hereford

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