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Continued. Read Part 1 here.
3 . Retirement for a priest is an oxymoron.
If the priesthood were a job like any other, retirement would be a normal
part of life. However, going back to the family model, does a good father
ever retire from being a father? Because a priest is a spiritual father
and one who should have strong attachment to his spiritual children, retirement
is an oxymoron for a priest. Psychologically this concept has done terrible
damage to both the priest and the parish. A pre-Vatican II priest never
even entertained the thought of retiring. He presumed that he would die
with his boots on. Barring serious illness he would remain at his parish
carrying on his functions to whatever capacity possible until his death.
Over the past 40 years, however, the retirement of priests has become accepted
as natural. So much so that priests now plan for it, look forward to it
and even devise ways to move up their retirement date. How much can I love
my family if I cant wait to get away from them? How much does being
a priest mean if the priestly life is deemed burdensome? How does the sacramental
theology of "a priest forever" exhibit itself in this mixed-message
business model? If I put my time in, I can collect my pension; and I must
invest for retirement in my latter years. This current attitude is directly
contrary to Pope John Pauls "Address to the Bishops of the Philippines
on Their Ad Limina Visit" when he stated, "To-days clergy
must be careful not to adopt the secular view of the priesthood as a profession,"
a "career," and a means of earning a living (2003). But in the
present scenario, how can a priest not think this way?
The next logical question is who will a priest share his retired years with.
Often his siblings are too old to have him and they have families of their
own. His parish family is now gone since he is disengaged from the parish
scene. And, for many, the retired priests home, which some dioceses
have established, is not appealing. Might a nice lady friend fill a need?
Why not? Its normal and practical. Let me give you a real life example
of how retirement is bad for the priest, for the parish and for vocations.
A number of years ago I was in a parish with an elderly priest. Monsignor
Vincent was just turning 75 and had to submit his letter for retirement.
It was something he dreaded. He told me, "I just cant picture
this." It was not the model of priesthood he knew. When the time came
for him to leave the parish, he couldnt even pack his belongings he
was so distraught. At his farewell Mass for the parish he began to cry,
so did I, and so did the parishioners. Everyone kept asking, "Why cant
Monsignor stay? Well help him if he needs help!" I had a number
of altar boys ranging from 10 to 22 years old. They loved Monsignor like
a grandfather. They cried, too. A few of the boys told me that the bishop
was mean. I really felt that I lost at least a few vocations that day. Im
sure in their minds they were thinking, "Is this what will happen to
me if I become a priest?" Monsignor Vincent went to live in a distant
rectory cut off from his parish family and friends. Later he wasnt
even welcome in the host rectory. After 50 years of priesthood there he
was, alone and at the mercy of another pastor, who could himself be transferred
or retire. And all this at 75 years old! Change is hard for anyone, but
for old people it is especially traumatic. Does a man at this age deserve
the stress and aggravation? Why would a normal person looking to the future
opt for this kind of life? Would a family encourage a son to become a priest
knowing this possible ending for their son? I doubt it!
4. The Bishops sex abuse policy.
The recent sexual abuse scandals in themselves are not enough to dissuade
vocations. Human beings do fail, sin and sometimes make poor judgment calls.
People do understand this. But how the bishops responded to their recalcitrant
priests in this crisis is further indicative of how much they have departed
from the family model of priesthood, and therefore more devastating for
vocations. The Dallas protocols and the desire at that meeting of many bishops
to quickly laicize as many problem priests as possible is symptomatic of
the business model they have been working out of for years. When a worker
is a problem, business gets rid of him. However, this flies in the face
of everything we encourage Christian families to do. We rail against divorce.
We proclaim for better or for worse. We tell parents to stick with their
children even in tough times. We remind them of the Prodigal Son. But when
one of the bishops sons is in trouble they want to cut him off, get
rid of him quickly. Recently Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter informing the accused priests
of his diocese that they were not welcome at diocesan liturgies. The bishop
wrote, "I have decided to exclude all priests on Administrative Leave
from all future diocesan sponsored events. This includes our annual Convocation,
Clergy Assembly Days, retreats, ordinations, Holy Week Ceremonies, and Jubilee
Celebrations." The bishop should be so firm with pro-choice "Catholic"
politicians who continue to act contrary to the faith and show no remorse
for their actions or amendment to change!
No doubt we have some guilty priests and others who are unjustly accused
but whatever the case, is it right that they are being shunned by a Church
that is their life? I remember when I was ordained, the bishop gathered
the priests in attendance and said to the ordinandi, "Behold your brothers."
He didnt add, "until they make a mistake!" In this crisis
we have stripped men of their priestly identity, their church family and
in many cases their livelihood by giving them a pittance to live on. So
much for my loving father the bishop! Why would a young man want to risk
his whole life on a family like this?
The most damaging effect of these policies is the psychological effect they
have had on one of our basic beliefs about the Sacrament of Orders, "Thou
art a priest forever!" All those trained in theology know the fine
points of the indelible character placed on the priests soul. But
how is this translated in the practical mind to the average person when
priests are being dismissed and having laicization forced on them? It makes
priesthood look like a job that offers little security, no family belongingness
or love. Even the theological and spiritual elements seem to have disappeared.
Having gone through these points, is it any wonder there is a paucity of
vocations? Furthermore, might that story of the 66-year-old priest who married
be percolating in the minds of other priests as a viable option? After all,
on a practical level it makes sense. The next logical question must be then,
Why would a priest want to encourage a young man to become a priest in this
milieu? Could a priest really say to a young man, paraphrasing Lacordaire,
"This is your life, O priest of God Its really great!"
Family breakdown has been identified by sociologists as the major cause
of deviancy in America. It is the root of illegitimacy, low birth rates
and an increase in crime. Mutatis mutandis, might we not posit the
same for the current dismantled model of family in the priesthood? The divorce
of bishops from their priests, the separation of priests from a parish family,
as well as many illegitimate notions about priesthood and priestly life,
are all major causes in the vocation crisis. Unless bishops are willing
to fix the faulty structures that I have outlined above, they will further
discourage vocations, alienate those already ordained and lead to the further
demise of the priesthood, as we have known it. The bishops must realize
that actions speak louder than words.
 Administrative leave: the term is not found in the New Code of Canon
Law (1983). It receives its force from c. 1722, which allows a bishop after
having heard the promoter of justice to place whatever restrictions he deems
appropriate on an accused priest. Many canonists are uneasy with this provision
and the way some bishops are applying it.
1). Address of John Paul II To The Bishops Attending A Formation Course
Sponsored by the Congregation for Bishops." September 18, 2003, #4.
2). "The Addresses of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of the Philippines
on their ad Limina Visit" October 2003, N. 6.
3). "The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope
of the World." Synod of Bishops Extraordinary General Assembly. The
Secretariat of the School of Bishops. 2001, #9.
4). Davidson, J.D (2003). "Fewer and Fewer: Is the clergy shortage
unique to the Catholic Church?" America. December 1, 2003, pp. 10-13.
5). Healy, P. (NYT. 12-5-03). "Long Island Bishop Will Meet Priests
To Address: Rift Over Scandal." P. c14.
6). Gregory, W. Letter to Priests of the Diocese Belleville, IL. September
7). Marin, C. (Chicago Tribune, 9-12-03). "The Priest Shortage;
When the flock overwhelms the shepherds on the issue of marriage."
8). Pelikan, J. (2003). "Credo: Historical and Theological Guide
to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition." CN:
Yale University Press.
9). Simons, J.A., Irwin, D.B., Drinnien, A. (1987). The Search for
Understanding. NY: West Publishing Company.
Reverend Michael P. Orsi, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., is
the author of four books and many articles. He has served as Assistant Chancellor and
Director of the Family Life Bureau. Fr. Orsi has a Ph.D. in education from Fordham University.
He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria
School of Law, Ann Arbor, Mich. His last article in HPR appeared in June 2004.
Related Ignatius Press titles on the priesthood:
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