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.