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Posted January 16, 2005

The Amazing Ministries of Retired Priests

By Father Eugene Hemrick

On retreats I give, I have met 70 and 80 year-old priests who care for several parishes, often traveling long distances to reach them. Others fill in so that burdened pastors can get away, while still others are the backbone of various ministries in their dioceses that include visiting shut-ins, working in hospitals, participating in marriage encounters, performing marriages, burying the dead and doing social justice ministry. Some can even be seen doing manual labor like fixing the rectory or church, or gardening and canning their produce.

When we reviewed the age categories of priests in the research studies we conducted at the Bishops’ Conference, our focus was primarily on active, non-retired priests. Retired priests generally were envisioned as being somewhere in the background due to health problems, lack of energy and immobility. Yet, the more I mingle with priests of all ages, the more I realize that retired priests today are definitely in the foreground!

These priests often exude an energy and strength that younger generations don't have. It's not that younger people lack energy or are weaker. Rather, it is that older people have a unique toughness that comes with age, despite physical degeneration. [In fact, illnesses often strengthen them. Hemmingway was correct is saying, “Life breaks us all, and many are stronger in the broken places.”] Older priests know how to better pace themselves, hang tough, recuperate, and face seemingly overwhelming problems with aplomb and calmness.

Once these men are gone, many dioceses already hurting for priests will be devastated. The number of U.S. parishes without a resident pastor is growing. Without these retired men, that number would be much larger. We especially will feel their loss in hospital ministry and ministry to the elderly.

As I've listened to retired priests recall their years of priesthood, I've realized that the wisdom and inspiration they pass on to younger priests are awesome. In fact, when younger priests tell their stories, many point to an older priest as their ideal, and the person who inspired them to become a priest. The loss of these older priests not only means that the church will lose an essential priestly support system, but more important, it will lose a wisdom community.

As dire as this may sound, elderly priests would tell us not to fear. Many who in their prime were autonomous pastors now advocate giving more responsibility to lay leaders. Instead of seeing a crippled church, many see new models of collaboration with the laity adding a fresh vitality. [In fact, many of these elders are the progressive force in the Church, and most embrace change.]

Most will admit that they don't particularly like seeing younger priests and the laity changing the way they did things, but in the same breath they will admit that change is needed and is good. Some even will say that a major change (e.g. married priests) would be welcome.

And what about elderly priests serving as wise mentors for younger priests? Many elderly priests would tell us that today's youth are much more independent and also more knowledgeable. They don’t look to older mentors as much as priests did in the past. But as water finds it level, so too will younger priests find the spirituality and wisdom needed to carry on, be it from other priests or the laity.

Our retired priests will one day be missed dearly. But their love for the priesthood and the people it serves will live on in those they have touched. With this spirit of love, the church and priesthood will not only survive, but also thrive.