Wisdom of the Ages: Lessons from living with retired clergy

With great trepidation I asked permission to sit at the breakfast table with the Rev. Desmond J. Regan, a man more than six feet tall with a thick waft of shock white hair perfectly combed to one side—no trace of a receding hair line—as he sat with one hand clutching a mug of black coffee and turning the page of his newspaper with the other. He read each article carefully, studying the words through a magnifying glass. He responded with a warm welcome, and we studied each other for what seemed like an eternity before he broke the silence and flung a news article my way, instructing me to “learn something.” His stern glance could shatter the cavalier attitude of any young seminarian wannabe like myself, and my cockiness crumbled before his gray eyes.

I took up residence in the St. John Vianney Retirement Home for Priests of the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala., during the 2012-13 year with excitement and the expectation that, with the bishop backing my year-long experiment, I could adapt to, and perhaps eventually take on, the life of a diocesan priest. The long experiment was similar to the novitiate formation in the Society of Jesus. It came with my own suite and back porch for cigar smoking, frequent dinners with diocesan clergy and a job at the local high school that had a degree of drama only high school students can provide. But don’t get me wrong, the year was tough; and banging my head against a pew every once in a while to discern God’s will was, at times, tougher.

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It was strange to think the living situation in which I found myself at age 24 was shared with priests who had completed a lifetime of ministry. Many priests and religious around the country are facing the impending retirement that often accompanies old age, and many more are still ministering in new ways in these new habitats.

Like a kid who had cornered his favorite baseball player, I tossed questions to the old priests at the table daily and for a few hours during breakfast on the weekends. Father Regan would tell of his days entering the seminary during the Great Depression. From the bustle of Detroit, where his father worked for Ford, to the little-known German settlement of Cullman, Ala., where St. Benedict’s Monastery welcomed him at age 15, Father Regan entered a life dedicated to the service of God’s people at an early age. He dreamed of one day ministering to congregations in Asia, but eventually adjusted his mission territory to the southern United States.

“The food was always good. It came right from the farm,” he said.

Father Regan died this year on Oct. 23 after 68 years of priestly ministry. His picture still hangs in the hall of John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham, Ala., where he was principal for a year in 1968/69, his stare following every student and faculty member who strolls by. Prior to his days at John Carroll, Father Regan was assigned to a high school in Montgomery, where he frequently dined with a Baptist preacher—Martin Luther King Jr.

Father Regan and I would talk (he mostly listened) about food for most of our conversations. I poured a glass of skim milk once for another priest in residence, Father Joe Underwood, and one for myself. Father Regan smiled and rhetorically asked, “Isn’t drinking this stuff like kissing your aunt?”

Father Underwood was what the church calls a late vocation. He didn’t enter the seminary until middle age. His life was quite different from Father Regan’s. He was drafted into World War II. He dated for a time before choosing the priesthood, and one of his dates was told by her confessor to steer clear of the young man, who now, as a 92-year-old priest who shuffles about with a walker, wouldn’t dare wear anything other than clerical black. He was also a convert and told stories of his encounter with the Catholic Mass at a Trappist Monastery in Germany.

“It was all in Latin then, you see,” he said. “I couldn’t understand a word, but it was beautiful.” He often greeted me in the morning with Introibo ad altare Dei and expected me to respond with Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam. I never got that part correct, or I would simply resort to, “And with your spirit.”

Each priest had his own opinion of how his days should be spent. Father Regan preferred to rise when he felt accustomed to rising, usually post noon. Father Underwood rose promptly at 6 a.m. to say Mass in his room with his smooth fox terrier as a faithful attendant.

Father Underwood would often speak of the sadness he experienced from not being able to minister any longer. He talked about how much he loved helping people and being there for them. He repeated his story of giving last rites to several airmen who were in an accident not far from his parish many years ago and how he would never forget anointing the body of a young man who committed suicide. Our connection occurred over a Hallmark film, which we watched as we sipped glasses of Canadian Mist. He needed it to relax, and I needed it to get through the film. “You serve for so many years, and then you’re left to die,” he said to me once, staring blankly at his plate, spinning his fork over and over between his fingers.

Pope Francis, in one of his homilies at a weekday Mass, called for “these shrines of holiness,” or elderly and aging priests and religious, to be revered and cared for by society, a call that included the care of elderly and aging lay persons as well, saying that a “society that doesn’t care for its elderly is a society without a future.” The church is seeing a steady growth in interest in vocations but also faces a steady increase in clergy and religious who are moving to retirement or are forced into retirement by illness.

Pope Francis has asked the church not to be so focused on issues that are placed at the ecclesial doorstep on a daily basis, but to encounter Christ in those that we have swept aside, including the elderly and shut-in. We must remember that the central focus of being pro-life lies within the church’s embrace of all human life. Those most vulnerable include the elderly and infirm as persons of the body of Christ who need our devoted care and compassion. More dioceses and religious communities are undertaking the task to better care for their retired clergy and religious, but more care is needed.

The health of our nation’s retired religious remains an issue that is gaining increased attention from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which partners with religious men and women to raise funds for retired religious. Still, the laity also has a responsibility to ensure the support and love of our faithful priests, brothers and sisters.

It was in my time of discernment at the retirement home where I felt much wisdom was gained—not so much about priesthood, or the diocese, or why the dining room was kept at the temperature of a meat-locker—but wisdom about living. These men may not be in the spotlight of the pulpit, the school principal’s desk or even the role of active ministry entirely, but these priests, like all elderly loved ones, need the love and care of their communities, especially from the people whom they ministered to for so many years.

The retirement home was a place I grew to love, despite the challenges it presented. (My battle with the cook raged on for several months. The case of the missing butter has yet to be resolved.) The time spent with these faithful priests was time well spent. I did not enter the seminary, but I entered a school of wisdom that could only come from spending time with these pillars of our society.

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