success stories

Posted January 1, 2004

A Ministry for Senior Priests

by Most Rev. Timothy J. Lyne, D.D

Taken from Touchstone, NFPC, Fall, 2003 with side commentaries by Gene Hemrick

In the 15 years I have had the blessing of this rank (Administrating to Senior priests). I have had the opportunity to minister to more than 550 Senior priests. About 20 to 30 die each year. It is unlikely that will have a higher number of retirees in the future since the classes retiring now are smaller in size. In Chicago, priests become Senior Priests at 70 years of age. I much prefer that phrase to saying they retire.

I would like to offer some observations about the men with whom it has been my privilege to minister and share life. The old cliche that you retire from administration not priesthood is so true. In his great apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II has this perceptive phrase that truly sums it up. "Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are united sacramentally to him in the ministerial priesthood. Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life." You cannot walk away from that.

Becoming a Senior Priest is a new and fresh opportunity to enter into the mystery of Incarnation, Resurrection and Priesthood. The happiest and healthiest, both physically and spiritually, are those who sought out a new ministry for themselves — a chance to do something they always wanted to do — or to use their formation and obvious talent in the same places in a different way. We are all aware of the large number of senior citizen and nursing homes who yearn for the time of a kind priest.

All priests should have begun to form a map and a dream of what they would like to do once they reach the age of 65. I would like to have your map include the care of your fellow priests. One of our emerging needs is manifested in the changing nature of our new priests — the variety caused by the later of age of ordination, national backgrounds, work experience and religious education. All are matters of our need for encouragement, support and direction as new priests enter ministry. We need to help those who will replace us.

There are two sections in Pastorales Dabo Vobis that I have found to be lodestones in my ministry to Senior Priests.

"The priest is called to deepen his awareness of being a member of the particular church in which he is incardinated, joined by a bond that is juridical, spiritual and pastoral. This awareness presupposes a particular love for his own Church and it makes that love grow. This is truly the living and permanent goal of the pastoral charity which should accompany the life of the priest and lead him to share in the history of life experience of this same particular Church. (74.3)"

"Ongoing formation for older priests will not be a matter so much of study, updating and educational renewal, but rather a calm and reassuring confirmation of the part which they are still called upon to play in the presbyterate, not only inasmuch as they continue, perhaps in different ways, their pastoral ministry, but also because of the possibilities they themselves have, thanks to their experience of life and apostolate of becoming effective teachers and trainers of other priests. (77.2)"

They have led me to some thoughts on what we can do. Being part of a particular Church creates needs and duties, opportunities and new visions both individual and Church-wise.

1. There is a spirituality of aging. David J. Maitland wrote a book titled, "Aging as Counterculture." For the priest that is what our lives have been all about. A critical and loving eye on our time and our culture. It has been my experience that young people listen closely to what older priests have to say on questions of social style and sexual ethics that are part of their culture. People, both young and old, are struggling for reality. (We might add here that the "Summit Meetings" of the past be reestablished and that older and younger priests address changing times and how in the past they were handled, and how the future is calling for a new way of handling them. What does the past have to teach us, and what is the future challenging us to do that heretofore we haven’t done?)

2. The wisdom of the Senior Priest is part of the voice of the local church and should be considered in policy, attitude and developing theology of the local Church. Our history is who we are. (We might add here that there needs to be a closer look at how older and younger priests view the Church — where do they different in their vision of it, and where do they concur?)

3. An interesting observation is that priests, while living "independently" develop a close and active relationship with a parish or institution. That is a blessing for both. The priest feels he "belongs" and the people have a new and added voice for their faith. It is something we need to foster. (One must wonder if we could use a few courses on the art of making a person feel he or she belongs. How well do we "involve" others? How do we "reactivate" a person who for all practical purposes have become inactive? Where do the talents of Senior Priests best fit in?)

4. Dioceses must ensure that Senior Priests are not only invited to our diocesan, deanery or area events, but that someone makes it both possible and convenient for them to attend and feel welcome.

5. It is important that someone call regularly to show interest and concern but also to encourage regular physical exams and retreats. In Chicago and in many dioceses, the diocese pays for this. Senior Priests also need to be encouraged to attend other spiritual and educational opportunities that are available. (Here we might add that physical fittest best works when it is a team effort. If you have someone else to play golf with, you are more likely to do it on a continual basis. So too with tennis, handball, jogging, etc.)

6. Yearly events such as Christmas lunches, summer dinners, picnics and other events hosted by the bishop are important for a sense of oneness and inclusion. (More than just having an event, there should also be a "happening", something makes an event worth attending.)

7. One of the mistakes Senior Priests of a diocese make is losing their sense of Church both universal and local. It is our Church in both good times and bad.

8. Providing a residence for our Senior Priests is both important and tricky. We must have them in various ways because dioceses vary so much in size and distance. It is relatively easy in a large metropolitan area but difficult in many areas. The important thing is priests feel they have some place to go and that their brother priests both visit and are there for them. Too often we are slow to do that regularly. (It would be a wonderful service to Senior Priests to learn from them what makes them feel at home when they have a place of their own? What defines a "homy" feeling, something you enjoy coming home to, working in, and recreating in?)

9. I would encourage our Senior Priests to consider the possibility of being a mentor to a younger priest, or seminarian. Equally, I have been inspired by the wonderful care that some of our young priests have given to individual Senior Priests. No matter how good an institution may be, there is no substitute for knowing that "someone cares." (It is of utmost importance that younger and older priests make their retreats together. There is no better environment in which to get to really know each other. The retreat master might be encouraged to have an evening in which older and younger priests tell about their journey to and in the priesthood)

10. Prayer for each other is paramount. For priests we have the perfect way — a look at the Diocesan Ordo each morning to commemorate those who have gone before us on this day..

Our Senior Priests deserve our finest care and it is gratifying to have so many lay people anxious and ready to help us.