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Maryknoll budget woes beg big questions about vision.

NEW YORK -- Maryknoll priests and brothers, facing a major budget deficit, are asking serious questions likely to affect the shape and direction of the society for years to come, according to Maryknoll's superior general.

Maryknoll has announced it is facing, for the second year in a row, an operational deficit. To bring its $50 million budget into balance by 1994 will mean downsizing, or "right-sizing," Superior General Father Kenneth Thesing said recently.

"Who are we? Where should we be going? Where will we be in the year 2000?"

Thesing told the society's top leadership that Maryknoll is in a crisis. But crisis can mean "both danger and opportunity," he said, adding that he did not hold that "we are in a panic situation."

Thesing said answers to questions about the mission of the society's 710 priests and brothers will help determine Maryknoll's "right size" and function. He said his vision calls for a Maryknoll that is smaller, older, more limited but "committed and focused, relevant and effective."

The order can no longer operate as it did in 1970, he explained.

Then, Maryknoll was still growing, Orbis books had just begun and opportunities seemed limitless, he said. When needed, "we could recruit other religious and lay missionary associates to get the job done," Thesing said. At the time, the society had more than 800 missioners in the prime of life, he added.

Today, the average age of the society's priests and brothers is 63. It is estimated that, by 2000, Maryknoll will have about 600 members, well over half of whom will be in their late 60s and beyond, Thesing said.

The cost of maintaining a Maryknoller over age 65 is now estimated at $25,000 annually, which brings the society's projected retirement and health costs to $7.5 million, according to its records. Many of these men are still working in the missions or are among the 400 employees at the society's headquarters in Ossingen, N.Y.

Others live in a Maryknoll retirement home in California, in the Ossingen seminary or at St. Theresa's home and infirmary, also in Ossingen.

Thesing said that, to date, Maryknoll has not had to seek funds from the nationwide collection taken up annually in all U.S. Catholic churches for elderly religious. It has been able to meet its retirement needs through designated endowments. Designated educational endowments have also helped to keep Maryknoll's School of Theology afloat, he said.

But the society might have to call on this fund in the future as members age and health-care costs mount, said Thesing. Besides Maryknoll's 710 priests and brothers -- 440 of whom are serving overseas -- it has been joined by 160 lay and 35 priests associates.

The society has also set up retirement funds for the 65 children of the lay associates as well as for staff in Ossingen and at its 18 regional centers across the nation.

On any Sunday of the year -- save Christmas and Easter week -- Maryknollers are on the road, preaching in parishes across America, seeking prayers, vocations and financial aid for the missions they serve in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific. These mission collections, aided by direct-mail promotions, gifts, book and video sales and 600,000 subscribers to Maryknoll Magazine account for 80-85 percent of the society's income.

Despite such an outreach, "we are not growing in any place," Thesing said. "We are just holding our own."

During the past three years, there have been only two to three ordinations annually, he said. And it looks unlikely that any men will be ordained or professed as brothers in 1994 and 1995, he added.

Even so, Maryknoll began to work in Cambodia in 1989, and last year it sent its first man to Vietnam, Thesing said. The society looks to the possibility of establishing a mission in Burma and Laos, he said.

"We reflect the energy and creativity of the U.S. church as well as its struggles," said Thesing, explaining that he remains hopeful. "Today's U.S. church does not esteem permanent commitment or celibacy," he said, "but it does offer expanded horizons for the laity and a renewed interest in mission."
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Title Annotation:Maryknoll missionary order
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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