What do we priests do when we retire? Or a better question is, what can priests do when we retire? How can we use our experience and gifts to serve the Lord in expanded roles, and ease the burdens of parish priests overloaded with work due to a dire priest shortage?
I am 76 years old and retired from full-time active ministry. I have served the Pittsburgh diocese in a number of capacities: pastor, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, headmaster of a Catholic high school, hospital and prison chaplain, and diocesan director of parish reorganization and revitalization. Not only do I believe I still have some energy, experience and gifts to serve the church, I firmly believe that many of the 95 retired priests in our diocese have much to offer, if only we would be asked, empowered, organized and mobilized.
A diocesan official wrote to me and several other retired priests five years ago, asking us to attend a meeting to discuss the needs of retired priests. I attended the meeting facilitated by the diocesan secretariat of clergy. I was encouraged that diocesan officials were concerned about us: our living arrangements, financial status, health issues, and our emotional and spiritual challenges. They wanted to know how they could be of assistance. We were forthright in expressing our feelings.
However, I asked a question that seemed to surprise everyone. I was interested not only in what the diocese could do for us, but also, what can we retired priests do for the church? A good number of retired priests are still healthy enough, with loads of experience and tons of talent. We are willing to be more than "rent-a-priests" for weekend liturgies.
I suggested that a brief survey be sent to retired priests asking us if we would be willing to do more. What services would we like to offer parishes and the diocese? The diocese would collect the information and conduct a brief follow-up interview with each willing respondent.
Five years later -- we had another meeting. No action was made regarding my suggestions.
Here are a few examples of what retired priests could do.
Teams of retired priests can be formed to provide a number of services. Two or three retired priests could form a team to conduct a spiritual day of recollection for parishes. Or if they have a little more energy, they could conduct a two-day retreat at a parish. No one priest would be overburdened with providing all of the spiritual talks. Each priest would review his best homilies. In collaboration with the other priests, the team could facilitate a retreat with a central theme based on the interests and needs of the people.
Some retired priests have been wonderful confessors. Teams of confessors can be organized. They would travel throughout the diocese on a limited basis. They would hear confessions and provide spiritual guidance. This idea is modeled on the work of retired doctors who have established free medical clinics for the poor and uninsured. One or two "confessional clinics" can be established in a few locations in the diocese. Specific days and times could be scheduled for Catholics to "go to confession."
Some retired priests have had extensive experience in diocesan capacities, e.g., Catholic schools, missionary activities, hospital and prison chaplaincies. They can serve as educational consultants for principals and teachers. Others can be mentors to newly appointed chaplains.
Consulting is a common practice for retired business executives who share their expertise and experiences with young executive types. Retired priests who were "successful" in parish work could be consultants to current pastors.
Seminary rectors and teachers could invite some retired priests to interact with seminarians. Sharing experiences and ideas would provide an andragogical approach to the teaching/learning process in seminary education.
While we welcome diocesan help, we offer our help, especially at this time when the church suffers from a shortage of priests. This can also help retired priests feel productive and useful.
I've had some interesting experiences as a "rent-a-priest." First of all, I have enjoyed the opportunity to visit a number of parishes and preside at Sunday liturgy. People are most welcoming and friendly. They are thankful a priest is coming to preside at their eucharistic liturgy.
I am impressed with the commitment and dedication of the laity to their own parishes. They unlock doors. They prepare the altar for the visiting priest. They serve as lectors, cantors and altar servers. They collect and count offertory collections and deposit the money at the bank. They take holy Communion to the homebound and to patients at local hospitals. They conduct RCIA classes and prepare children for their first holy Communion and confirmation. Lay women and men conduct graveside prayers at cemeteries. They love their parishes.
My experiences as an itinerant priest reveal some of the repercussions of the current priest shortage. For instance, several parishioners invited me to live in their empty rectory and be available for Sunday Mass. They want the Eucharist and the sacraments. That's all they wanted from me.
Overworked and burned-out parish priests call me to help. Unfortunately, at times, I was not available to help them. In one particular situation, the pastor was disheartened. He was pastor of one parish and administrator of another. He was scheduled to preside at liturgy at one parish at 8 a.m., at his other parish at 9 a.m., celebrate a funeral Mass at 10 a.m., go to the cemetery for graveside prayers, and he was on duty that same day to "cover" the local hospital emergency calls.
He told me a day later that he was able to survive that day, even though hospital personnel called him twice for emergency anointing of dying Catholic patients, once in the middle of the night. This may seem atypical to the laity. However, this type of unreasonable daily workload has become ordinary for today's parish priest.
Another pastor told me he presided at eight funerals in four days. This means he prepared eight eulogies. He visited the funeral homes eight times to lead prayers. He spent time with the families, trying to console them. He went to the cemeteries four times. A layperson was able to go to the cemetery the other times. He attended luncheons after the funerals. In addition, he presided at the regular weekday Masses at his parish. Moreover, he was involved in meetings and other pastoral activities during those four days. To repeat, this type of daily workload has become ordinary for today's priest.
I did have an unusual experience in a parish where I was asked to celebrate a Saturday evening vigil Mass. This was my first visit to this parish. I was vesting in the sacristy and conversing with the lector and organist. I asked them the names of the other "rent-a-priests" who also help out at weekend liturgies.
To my surprise, they said they did not know their names. They explained that they don't ask priests their names because they usually don't see the same priest again. They felt there is no sense in getting to know them. There was little possibility of establishing any sort of genuine relationship. I introduced myself. Like some of the other visiting priests, I too have not returned.
Parishioners at another parish told me that when a priest is not available for Sunday Mass, the laity conduct a Communion service, which they enjoy. No priest. No liturgy of the Eucharist. No homily. It lasts 15 minutes and then they go home. What attitudes are we creating when we underserve our laity?
I am calling on bishops to convene us, dialogue with us, survey the ways we can form teams of retired priests, empower us and send us forth with renewed energy and commitment to serve the Lord and his people.
[Fr. Robert G. Duch is a retired Pittsburgh diocesan priest. He is the author of two books: Successful Parish Leadership and God, What Do You Think of Me?]