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William D. KargMarch 22, 2010

After serving the diocese of Cleveland for 44 years, I retired in 2008, not from priestly ministry but from being a pastor. I enjoyed a wonderful retirement party with the expected array of emotions. Then, having bid my goodbyes, I filled my car with the last load of books and clothes and drove into the unknown. What have I learned about retiring as a priest that could be helpful to others?

The first lesson came within a day or two: Retirement requires a period of adjustment. Retiring from being a parish priest all those years is like standing under a waterfall that suddenly shuts off. One asks: What happened? and What does it mean? What happened is that one’s life, once jammed with activities, now is not. It means that one needs to accept the joy of this freedom even as one creates new daily structures for one’s life.

In a recent survey of retired priests, When We Can No Longer “Do”: Issues in Retirement for Diocesan Priests, by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., one priest commented, “When a priest retires, he doesn’t stop ministry, but he does stop serving as a C.E.O. of these small corporations we call parishes.” Another said, “By ‘retire’ I mean leave behind administrative duties and return to full-time ministry.”

Being free of administration, I rediscovered the richness and fulfillment of ministry. During the first year of retirement I felt uncertainty about how I would spend my days, but eventually various people called to request help with different forms of ministry.

Fortunately, I had taken some time to make retirement plans. That meant organizing a new agenda. My plan included serious reading, to reactivate my mind with some of the latest theology being published. Study in spirituality at Creighton University and an eight-day retreat there provided an opportunity to clarify the path I wanted to take in retirement. With the help of God, a new sense of mission is taking shape, and I feel more at peace.

How Many Are We?

I am hardly alone. In the United States, there are approximately 10,000 retired priests. According to the CARA’s research, “Dioceses now have one retired priest for every two active priests.” In Cleveland we have 111 priests who are retired, absent or sick. These numbers point to a relatively new phenomenon in the American church. The research reminds us that increased retirement numbers come amid the well-known shortage of priests. Down from 36,000 mostly active diocesan priests in 1970, there are fewer than 28,000 diocesan priests today; fewer than 20,000 of whom are in active ministry. Over the same years, the priest-to-people ratio dropped from 1,500 to one to 3,500 to one.

What do priests do when they retire? Many different things, as several random examples show. A priest friend in California offers Mass for a community of contemplative nuns and serves as chaplain on cruise ships. A priest in Maine uses his gifts to write and publish books on spirituality and heads a diocesan diaconate program. A semi-retired priest of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers in New York puts his doctorate in information technology to good use helping dioceses in that area; he also writes research papers. A high school classmate in Indianapolis serves as chaplain for religious sisters, encouraging them to seek spiritual direction. Some retired priests engage in wider ministries, like the volunteers in Global Fellows, a program of Catholic Relief Services. The volunteers travel to various parishes around the nation a few times a year to celebrate weekend liturgies and preach about the work of C.R.S.

My own activities are similar to those of about 90 percent of retired priests. I celebrate Mass and hear confessions at some 23 locations; I volunteer at a drop-in center for the homeless run by the Catholic Worker; and I offer spiritual direction and help with campus ministry at Akron University.

Ideas for Dioceses

It is clear to me that dioceses could do more to help priests prepare for retirement. For example, dioceses could make recommendations on medical, legal and housing issues and help priests as they adjust to retirement, offering them spiritual direction. That helped me come to a much deeper sense of gratitude for my ministry and my time. Especially in cases of sickness, some retired priests need help to maintain social interaction with other priests and laypeople.

Retirement offers new opportunities to continue using the unique gifts God has given them. A diocese might invite retired priests to form a small “wisdom think tank” to focus on pastoral challenges, like finding ways to bring a Catholic presence into areas where several urban or rural parishes have closed. Or the diocese might sponsor a retired priests’ lecture program, so older priests could share their “specialties” with others. Or a diocese or seminary might establish an archival program, where elder priests are interviewed (in print, or on audio or video), preserving for others their rich experiences. I’m sure there are other ways of helping retired priests “bear fruit in old age” (Ps 92) and stay connected with the first love of their lives—pastoral ministry.

Retirement also raises a few questions. What is the best way, for example, to inform parishioners about the number of priests in retirement and explore what that number does and does not mean for the church? For priests about to retire, should dioceses create more part-time ministry options? Perhaps the most important question is: Why are so many priests retiring? Is it only because of increasing age, or also because trying to be a C.E.O. distances priests from ministry?

In the CARA study one priest said, “If I win the lotto, I’d retire tomorrow—and do ministry until I dropped dead.” That possibility raises a related concern about whether parishes need lay administrators (a ministerial position beyond that of business manager) to take over all nonpastoral administrative tasks. That, in turn, might allow pastors more time to prepare and preach better homilies. And in the end, it might result in happier pastors, who would retire later rather than sooner.

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Mike Evans
12 years 3 months ago

We have had so many positive experiences with retired priests and with academic priests doing summer supply. For most of them, administrative duties are not required and they absolutely love it. I think it would greatly benefit our parish pastors and vicars to be virtually relieved of all administrative duties. These could be more capably handled by laity, or perhaps deacons and religious. But even deacons would rather concentrate on ministry and not have too much administrative responsibility. Each diocese could simply provide canonical supervision over temporal affairs and relate directly to local parish administrative personnel as needed. Relieving most clergy and religious from these burdens would indeed be a blessing and might even extend for a significant period the quality of their emotional, spiritual, physical and ministerial life.

12 years 3 months ago

". . . to reactivate my mind with some of the latest theology being published . . ."

This statement is at once sad and scary.  Sad, because this pastor has not kept up with the latest theology as many of his lay parishioners have.  And scary, for the same reason!

Perhaps if our parish priests absolved themselves of all the devotional accoutrements (rosaries, benedictions, holy hours, stations, novenas, and all other devotionalisms resurrected by JPII and BXVI) and focused more on REAL theological discussions with parishioners, we would not have this sad and scary comment. 

Just imagine a parish where discussions could be freely held on matters of optional celibacy, women priests, coping with the sex abuse crisis that won't go away, a new model of religious life, a new model of priesthood, a new model of church organization (as proposed, for example, by the Netherlands), developing an ecumenical respect for other religious dimensions, maintaining a Christian perspective in a pluralistic society, and any number of other topics that current theologians are addressing but that are "banned" from consideration on "parish property."  Banning a topic does not make it go away - it simply sends that topic to another place where people will still address it. 

So, yes, I feel sad that Rev. Karg had to wait until retirement to "catch up" on theology, but even more, I feel scared because this very fundamental part of developing a parish community and a corresponding spirituality is missing from the lives of our parishes.

Francis Scheets
12 years 3 months ago

Bill Karg:

I am the "retired Crosier priest with the New York apartment." But I live with the Crosier Community here in Phoenix.

Congratulations on your article and on America for publshing. The retirement issue for diocesan priests has been neglected for too long. I undertook the study of the Detroit retired priests because the Retirement Committee was really interested in the actuarials as they directly related to Archdiocesan funding for retirment. As the representative of the Presbyteral Council on the RC  I insisted that the commttee must know what the retired priests income and expenses really were. I was almost cut-off at the pass by several members who told me: "You will never get financial data from those priests!!!"

   Having done a number of studies of priests' income/expenses, I objected and told the RC that I could! "No way" came their response. I said I would bet that I could easily obtain responses from 15%....I told the committee that I had friends who would help.

   I received 90% response on the survey part of the study. I got 60% response from the 130 retirees on their detailed income and expense. And six pages of written responses.

   I did give some thought to going for a wider study of retired diocesan priests, but once I realized that medium and small dioceses had small numbers of retirees I did not pursue the idea. Scattered retirees would have proved too difficult to obtain data without a significant foundation grant.

My email, if you are interested: bscheets@crosier.org

Before signing off: ARE you perchance the Bill Karg who put me up at your inner city parish when I was doing some work for the diocese?

Francis Kelly Scheets, osc, PhD


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