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Tips for Priests Nearing Retirement

Transferring out of active ministry takes thoughtful planning

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The dazzling rays of the sun enter through the window of a large Catholic church. As I sat admiring God’s splendor radiating through the sanctuary, a smiling, elderly priest walked up the main aisle to begin Mass. He reflected joyful hope before he said a word.

His demeanor spoke of a happy priest. Later I learned that he was recently retired after 50 years of faithful service. Seeing him caused me to reflect on my own retirement, other priests near retirement and those already retired. It soon became evident that no single path exists for every senior (retired) priest to follow.

At retirement, a priest who once served in active ministry can back off, relax, grow spiritually and enjoy his golden years in peace. Retirement enables him to live according to his own schedule, interests and desires and be freed from administrative or organizational responsibilities. Often, the best time for a priest to retire is influenced by his mental and physical health.

‘Life has taken shape’
“In old age you are more deeply
practiced, so to speak. Life has
taken its shape. The fundamental
decisions have been made. On
the other hand, one feels the
difficulty of life’s questions more
deeply, one feels the weight of
today’s godlessness, the weight
of the absence of faith which goes
deep into the Church, but then one
also feels the greatness of Jesus
Christ’s words, which evade
interpretation more often than
before.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,
in “Last Testament: In His Own
Words” (Bloomsbury Continuum,
$14)

The Code of Canon Law does not require diocesan priests to retire. It says, “When a pastor has completed 75 years of age, he is asked to submit his resignation from office to the diocesan bishop, who, after considering all the circumstances of person and place, is to decide whether to accept or defer the resignation; the diocesan bishop, taking into account the norms determined by the conference of bishops, is to provide for the suitable support and housing of the resigned pastor” (538.3). In other words, a pastor (priest) is not mandated to retire, nor is the bishop required to accept his resignation. Since a priest’s retirement is not definitely determined, a great deal of latitude exists.

In addition to Canon 538, which mentions providing for pastors, Canon 281 mentions providing social assistance for clerics (bishops, priests and deacons). It says, “Provision must also be made so that they [clerics] possess that social assistance which provides for their needs suitably if they suffer from illness, incapacity or old age” (281.2).

Michael N. Kane, in his article in Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, “The Taboo of Retirement for Diocesan Priests,” says some believe “that priesthood is a vocation from which there can be no retirement. The expectation is that the priest will continue to be of service throughout his life until he is physically or cognitively unable to do so.” This perception harkens back to an era when priests never retired, and to the conclusions that may be drawn from Canon 538.3 quoted above.

The tradition that a priest can retire from active ministry, while retaining his faculties to serve as a priest on a part-time basis, has developed in the United States since Vatican II. The retirement age, financial support and other matters vary from diocese to diocese. They are influenced by and dependent of customs and resources in each diocese.

Retirement doesn’t mean a priest ceases to be a priest. Senior priests usually are happy to assist in ministries associated with the heart of priestly ministry, such as the Eucharist or reconciliation. Parishes would be in dire straits if it were not for their generous help.

Retirement can be a fruitful time, filled with meaning and purpose. A priest’s positive attitude toward retirement, his sense of humor and his planning for it are important. They set the stage for his transition from active ministry to retirement. As the St. Meinrad pre-retirement workshop for priests indicates, a priest’s retirement is the time for him to find “new purpose, new meaning and new direction.” A major question is, “When will a priest retire?”
 

THREE MAJOR ISSUES

There are three big issues that can influence the timing of a priest’s retirement. First, what is the diocesan policy for the age of a priest to retire? Second, will the priest receive sufficient monetary and other support from the diocese? Third, how is the priest’s health?
 

Retirement Age

Can a healthy priest count on retiring at 65, 70 or 75 years of age? This is up to the local bishop. The average age for priests to retire in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, is about 70.
The nationwide priest shortage pressures some bishops to move toward a later age for retirement. As the number of priests diminishes in each diocese, the bishops are asking priests to remain longer in active ministry. Diocesan policies on priest retirement ought to be clear, and bishops ought to abide by the agreed-upon policies. If the age of retirement for priests is unclear, this places a priest in a difficult position. It’s no easy matter to plan for retirement if he is not sure when he is allowed to retire.
It’s not a question of the “right” of a priest to retire. Rather, retirement is a way of showing him love and gratitude for the years he served. A reasonable retirement age is the least that the Church can offer him.
 

Adequate Financial Resources

Added to his personal savings, will the money a priest receives from the diocese be sufficient in his retirement years? Will he need to earn more to sustain himself?

Retirement income provided by the diocese for senior priests differs from place to place. Many priests have adequate financial resources, considering the monies accrued from a diocesan retirement fund, social security, family inheritance and personal savings. In addition to what the diocese might be providing, many senior priests are compensated for their sacramental ministry during the week or on weekends.

Retirement plans for priests vary from diocese to diocese. Most dioceses have a retirement plan for priests. It is important to know what this plan provides for senior priests, and if it includes reimbursement for Medicare premiums, a qualified pension plan, a 401(k), a 403(b) or other configurations.

The adequacy of retirement income and health care plans provided by the diocese for senior priests is not the same everywhere, especially in smaller dioceses or in those with financial difficulties. If a diocesan priests’ retirement plan is underfunded, a priest nearing retirement needs to consider this issue.

A priest’s financial preparation for retirement should happen over many years. He may not have sufficient financial resources for retirement if he starts saving when he begins to think about retiring. Such financial preparation is even more important if he is responsible to care for relatives and siblings.
 

Health

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Health is a key factor in considering retirement. It is something a priest cannot control. Some are healthy into their 80s, others experience failing health earlier. As a priest ages, his energy gradually dissipates. What once was routine suddenly becomes difficult.

A priest is to take his health seriously. As he ages, this means getting adequate exercise, enough sleep, watching his diet, being prudent in the consumption of alcohol and faithful to regular health checkups and medication. Even a short nap in the afternoon, or more sleep at night, produces positive results and enhances a priest’s long-term health.

It’s also wise to slow down and delegate more responsibilities to others. This enables him to take more time to pray, think and reflect as a prelude to retirement. Slowing down may enable a priest to function longer and enhance his health into old age.
When a priest approaches retirement age, he has to be honest about what he can and cannot do. Maybe it’s time to retire because he is worn out or in failing health. If this is the case, he is wise to discuss the matter with priest friends, a spiritual director, the priest personnel office and his bishop.
 

PREPARING FOR RETIREMENT

When a priest anticipates his retirement, it is worth considering the following factors.
 
Attend a Retirement Seminar

Some dioceses have retirement planning seminars for priests. Other retirement workshops for priests are available on a regional level. These offer good advice for those hoping to retire. In addition, retired priest friends also can advise those who haven’t gone through it by helping with retirement concerns.

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Questions to Ask

Addressing the following questions as a priest plans for retirement is a good way to prepare for the future:

• What will I do after retirement?
• How will I remain active in priestly ministry?

• What will energize me and give me a reason to get up in the morning?
• What will I enjoy doing in my ministry and leisure time?
• How will I occupy my days?
• With whom will I spend my time?
• What will bring balance into my life?
• Who can I count on for companionship?

• How is my health?
• How can I keep active socially?
• What will be my strengths and obstacles after retirement?
• How can I continue to grow spiritually?
• Are my last will and testament, and other matters, in good order?

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Investigate Possible Living Quarters

An important question is, “Where will I live?” Some senior priests live in apartments, condominiums, their own homes or rectories. Others live alone or with another priest. If a senior priest lives in a rectory, he ought to clarify his responsibilities, perhaps in writing. If not, he may fall into the trap of becoming too involved in the parish.

A senior priest living in a rectory usually arranges his accommodations with the pastor and agrees to a limited amount of parish ministry, such as weekend help or several daily Masses in a week, in exchange for room and board.

Some dioceses provide senior priests living quarters, but few have accommodations for all senior clergy. Other priests move out of the diocese, possibly with a family member or to a warm environment, such as Florida or California. Priests must make sure they have a plan on where they’ll live.
 

Intensify Spiritual Preparation

As senior priests enter their final stage, they usually consider their spiritual life more deeply. This might include faithful praying of the Divine Office, selecting a spiritual director and/or a regular confessor and making provisions for days of recollection and retreats. It may also include selecting spiritual books and working out a schedule of Masses to celebrate weekly.
 

RETIREMENT

Retirement is a defining moment in a priest’s life. It was for me when the archbishop gave me permission to retire. As I reflect on my retirement, I recall the senior priest mentioned at the beginning of this article. His positive attitude serves as a reminder for all senior priests.

He is a prophet of hope when celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and in his overall demeanor. For a senior priest to reflect this image to the Christian community, the following are suggested.
 

Focus on Who I Am, Not What I Do

At retirement, a senior priest’s spirituality often shifts from “what I do” to “who I am.” Being and doing are always involved in a priest’s life, but as a priest ages, what he does becomes more rooted in who he is.

During active ministry, what a priest does plays a paramount role, whether as a pastor, teacher or chancery worker. His identity often centers around what he does. In retirement, a shift occurs from this work orientation to who he is as a priest and not what he does in ministry.

This shift is difficult for some priests. As they find themselves without as much to do, they take a deeper look at who they are before God. Discovering the inner meaning of being a priest, without the burden of administrative responsibilities, plays a significant role in their happiness.
 

Avoid Rushing into Anything

Most senior priests take a serious look at their life and priestly ministry after retirement. This takes time as they adjust to a new way of being a priest. Where they celebrate Mass is important. Some do so in parishes, health care centers or convents for nuns.
Which priestly ministries they continue to exercise often depends on their health and whether they want to commit themselves to a regular schedule of priestly responsibilities.
 

Strive to Be Healthy

Physical and mental health concerns are a serious matter to be addressed. To do so, a senior priest may join a fitness club or devise other ways to keeps his body and emotions in good balance. Recreation, especially walking, can be a big help. Many priests play golf, but more is needed. It is recommended that a senior priest look for variety in what he does and with whom he associates.

Senior priests are encouraged to watch their diet, eat nourishing food and see their doctor or health care professional on a regular basis. When a priest’s energy wanes or sickness makes it difficult for him to live alone, he may recognize the need to change his living situation. This could involve the utilization of nursing assistance at his home or moving to an independent living, assisted living or full nursing facility.
 

Declutter One’s Life

Retirement provides the opportunity for a priest to simplify his life and get rid of the needless stuff he has accumulated. This may include books, clothes, pictures, statues, papers, files and other items.
A senior priest may move to smaller quarters. If he does, this may require that he prioritize what he can keep and what he can give away.
 

Get Legal Affairs in Order

A senior priest needs to make sure that all his legal and other affairs are in order. These include his funeral arrangements, medical directives, power of attorney and last will and testament.
 

Conclusion

Senior priests spend their lives responding to Jesus’ call. They first heard it early in life and heard it again and again in their priestly ministry. In their senior years, Jesus calls them once more to be a healing presence and to bring hope to those around them.
 

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As they respond to Jesus’ calling, whether by celebrating the Eucharist or sitting patiently in a retirement home, their demeanor and smile tell others that their life has borne fruit. Continued loyalty to their calling on earth anticipates their final calling into heaven.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., is a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest and an internationally known author and lecturer. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.