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Posted May 25, 2004

A Success Story That Priests Approaching Retirement Might Want To Follow Up On. Why Not Write Msgr. Ignatius Roppolo in New Orleans. You can reach him at: St. Rita Church, 2729 Lowerline St. New Orleans 70125-3599, or e-mail The Johnson Institute johnson@pshdc.com

Priests face anxiety, opportunity upon retirement

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

It's a well-known scriptural passage describing the permanent nature of priestly ordination: "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."

For retired priests and those who are fast approaching mandatory diocesan retirement age, those words resonate with both opportunity and anxiety.

At a time when there are fewer active priests in the United States to handle the demands of sacramental ministry, the average retirement age for priests has crept higher over the last decade.

In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where retired Msgr. Ignatius Roppolo, 75, serves as coordinator of the more than 50 retired diocesan priests, priests are allowed to request retirement at age 70. They must submit their retirement letter to the archbishop at age 75, although the archbishop may grant priests who request it a one-year extension to remain in active ministry.

Msgr. Roppolo says retirement hardly means the end of priestly ministry; in fact, he said many priests who remain in good health are almost as busy as ever, celebrating Mass in parishes that are short-handed and helping out in many other ministries.

When Msgr. Roppolo retired in 2002, he knew he wanted to do some kind of senior adult ministry. He participated in two extensive workshops with St. Louis-based psychologist Dr. Richard P. Johnson.

A Catholic gerontological counselor, Johnson, 57, has worked with women religious, priests and lay people who are "in the second half of life" in nearly 70 dioceses through his Johnson Institute.

"We are at the start of the greatest cultural experiment the world has ever seen, outside of Jesus Christ," Johnson told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans' archdiocesan newspaper. "In the last 90 years, our longevity has increased 30 years. The question then becomes, 'What does Jesus expect of us in these 30 years?'

"Basically what our culture says we are supposed to do in retirement is rest and play," he said. "I've got nothing against that, but if all you do is rest and play and follow what the world tells us, we are on a straight line between here and the hospital. We will get sick -- physically, emotionally and spiritually."

Msgr. Roppolo has collaborated with Father Douglas Brougher, who directs a ministry for sick priests in the New Orleans Archdiocese, on ways to help senior priests. One effort led to an increase in the tax exemption for a retired priest's housing allowance. Another resulted in the addition of a retired priests' representative on the priests' council.

Last year Msgr. Roppolo began mailing a newsletter called "Wisdom Years" to every retired priest. The issues are filled with information gleaned from Johnson's workshops and with articles on how to take advantage of relatively lighter schedules to grow spiritually.

"The other day as I was talking to a friend about my upcoming birthday, he reminded me that age is a number and not a disease," Msgr. Roppolo said. "More and more of the reading I have done points to the unique opportunities and blessings in reaching the 'wisdom years.' This doesn't take away from the significant changes with regard to ministry and living conditions."

Johnson says the retirement years represent the greatest time in life for self-discovery. He uses a self-assessment questionnaire to help priests make the transition from active ministry.

"In the last 10 years I have seen the retirement age for priests creep up," Johnson said. "When I first started doing this in 1992 or '93, the average mandatory retirement age in the dioceses I visited was around 68. Then it crept up to 70 and then 72 and now, canon law pretty much says a bishop must retire at 75, and that seems to be across the board with priests."

Johnson said the average retirement age for lay people is 57.

"So a priest's parishioners are retiring and they're having to minister to these people who are retired and they can't see the same thing happening for themselves," Johnson said. "For some priests that's OK; for others, it takes some adjustment."