success stories

Posted February 20, 2003

What Priests Want From Retirement

By Father Eugene Hemrick

Repeatedly, I am hearing priests say they can't wait to retire so they can let the next generation of priests take over. This attitude often amazes laypersons, who ask, ``Where is the lifetime dedication a priest pledges to Christ?''

But before letting ourselves be shocked to know that many priests want to retire, let's examine this issue closer.

Never in American history has retirement been emphasized as it is now. Our great-grandparents may have saved up for retirement, had pension plans and dreamt of settling down after retirement, but they never had the kinds of pension plans and retirement communities to retire to that exist today. Nor were there organizations specifically designed to teach people about retirement.

And although these are radical changes, the most dramatic change of all is that people are living much longer -- with reasonably good health.

All this has raised the expectation that retirement and the enjoyment of its benefits are meant to be. This mindset is integral to our society -- the society priests are part of. One priest told me of an incident that sheds further light on this issue. ``The other day,'' he said, ``I sideswiped a parishioner's car and suddenly realized I was missing a step. The time had come to step aside and let a more energetic, alert person take over. No easy admission to make.''

Most priests who look forward to retirement also want to stay in the saddle, but they realize that the day of the horse and buggy has been superseded by the jet age, the digital world and new management techniques -- all seeming to require a new generation schooled in these worlds. As with elderly laypersons who no longer desire to live in spacious homes, opting instead for a condo where they are free of home cares, so priests experience a stage in life when they don't have the spirit to keep up all the responsibilities they once carried out.

However, if we listen carefully to priests pining for retirement, we will find that they don't want to relinquish the daily celebration of Mass or their teaching role.

Rather, they realize that the time remaining for them is limited. When this realization hits people, they tend to eliminate menial tasks and address the essentials in life. For priests, this translates into discarding tasks such as bookkeeping, sponsoring fund-raisers, maintaining facilities, chairing meetings and attending numerous functions on any given day. Important as these are, they aren't the essence of priesthood.

What is essential is to celebrate Mass, funerals and marriages; to deliver inspiring homilies that are borne of reflection and prayer; to attend to the poor, sick and dying; to communicate an awareness of God.

When elderly priests pine for retirement, it is not so much that they are giving up on their priesthood and leaving its work to the next generation. Rather, they want to use the time left to them to refine the true meaning of their priesthood by living its essentials to the fullest. Through this desire for what is essential, they remind the priests following them not to lose sight of the basics of their priesthood.