Old Priests Never Really Retire - They Just Keep Soldiering On

WORCESTER, Mass. — It would seem so easy for them to retire. So easy to just relax and do something they probably never had a lot of time to do, such as play golf or join a bridge club. That's the reward of having worked hard as a priest for many years, one might assume.

But if there is one thing that has impressed and inspired Carmelite Sister of the Eucharist Mary Ann Bartell during the past two-and-a-half years of ministering to retired priests in the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., it is this: Priests might retire, but they never leave the priesthood.

“I have priests who are in their 80s who are still filling in at parishes and saying Masses and participating and being very active as much as they can be,” she said. “The problem comes when there is a major illness that no longer allows them to be active in their ministry because their health care just doesn't allow it.”

And even when a major illness does occur, some still don't retire. Sister Bartell knows a 74-year-old pastor who is suffering from a brain tumor. While spending time in a nursing home recuperating from a bad fall, the priest couldn't stop ministering to others.

“I've learned they will minister as long as there is someone to minister to and as long as they're able to minister,” Sister Bartell said.

Canon law says a parish priest who has completed his 75th year of age is “requested to offer 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 it.”

Many dioceses, however, make retirement an option at 65 or 70. With the shortage of priests and the median age of priests in the United States at about 60, many retired priests still help out as much as they can.

“Many older priests are active in pastoral ministry, even if they're not pastors,” said Father Charles Fahey, 70, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., and a retired professor of aging studies at Fordham University in New York. He is former director of the university's Third Age Center, which was designed to make Fordham “hospitable” to older people.

Older priests remaining in active ministry “also is a function in the change in what it is to be old,” Father Fahey said. “Our definition and understanding of being old is far different today than it was 40 years ago.

“I would say the vast majority of priests want to continue to be in the service of God's people, and they can be, where they couldn't have been in the past.”

Despite his advanced age and health problems, Pope John Paul II — a prime example of someone who wants to continue to be of service — encouraged other elderly priests in his 1999 “Letter to the Elderly” with the following: “Dear brother priests and bishops, who, for reasons of age, no longer have direct responsibility for pastoral ministry. The Church still needs you. She appreciates the services that you may wish to provide in many areas of the apostolate; she counts on the support of your longer periods of prayer; she counts on your advice born of experience, and she is enriched by your daily witness to the Gospel.”

Even when they can't help out at the parish level, many retired priests still work on their spiritual lives. Although Father Roland Hebert, 83, misses being part of the life of a parish, he realizes he can't help out at the level that's expected of him. He had celebrated weekend Masses at his former parish, Holy Name of Jesus in Worcester, Mass., for several years after his retirement in 1989.

But then various health ailments made him realize he had to stop. So he lives in a private apartment in a retirement facility in Shrewsbury, Mass., with about 15 other priests, where prayer and the Eucharist continue to be an important part of his daily routine.

“I don't neglect my spiritual life,” he said. “I say Mass every morning. I try to meditate every day. I have a daily visit with the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, the breviary — that's all part of the spiritual life that we've been trained to. And I've kept that up over the years.”

Some priests scoff at retirement.

“A priest never retires, not really,” said 88-year-old Father John Horgan-Kung, who has been quite active during his retirement. He was the volunteer archivist with the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., until he was 82. He was also the confessor and interpreter to Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, the bishop of Shanghai who spent the last years of his life in the diocese.

Father Horgan-Kung, who added the name “Kung” to his last name in honor of Cardinal Kung, who died in 2000, lives in the Catherine Dennis Keefe Queen of the Clergy Residence, a home for retired priests in Stamford, Conn.

“The thing about retirement for a priest is, for the first time in your life — I'm going on 89 — I almost can do anything I want, when I want,” he said. “Nobody can do that, except when we get to heaven, you know.”

Father Horgan-Kung thinks another benefit of getting older has been an increase in zeal for God.

“I'm more fervent a priest now than when I was ordained,” he said. “I'm more mature now, and I deal with people better now than as a young man. My faith is just as strong as always.”

More than 10 years ago, one of Father Horgan-Kung's friends, Father John Sabia, decided to start an “adopt-a-retired priest” ministry at St. Jude Church in Monroe, Conn., to let parishioners realize and appreciate the priesthood and what retired priests in the Diocese of Bridgeport have contributed to the Church.

Families who sign up are encouraged to send Christmas, Easter and birthday cards to retired priests who want to receive them. The families also pray daily for the priests, Father Sabia said.

“Our purpose is to let priests know that people care and are concerned for them,” he said.

He got the idea when visiting the Queen of the Clergy retirement facility, where a retired priest who was feeling lonely told him one day that no former parishioners have contacted him since he retired.

“I felt sorry for him,” Father Sabia said, “because I know I'll be there one day, too.”

Carlos Briceno is based in Seminole, Florida.