To hear some senior priests tell it, the years after their official retirements might be the best time of their ministerial lives.

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The term generally refers to priests who have reached the retirement age for their dioceses, but still live in or help out in parishes. They often celebrate Mass, hear confessions, make sick calls and do just about everything — except go to meetings they don’t want to and worry about the budget and whether the roof leaks.

Msgr. Thomas Prendergast, a senior priest at Our Mother of Confidence Parish in San Diego, said his days are full. Prendergast is 81 and has been retired since he was 75. He was already retired when he moved into Our Mother of Confidence at the invitation of the pastor.

“I say Mass at least every Sunday and sometimes during the week,” he said. “I hear confessions every Saturday, and the sick calls, you know. We have a large parish here, a lot of seniors. I don’t do a lot of administration to speak of. Before I was retired, there was a lot of administration.”

Msgr. Prendergast said he thinks that people might like to have a younger man in the parish, but “they’re happy to have a priest.”

He most enjoys visiting the sick and anointing people who are seriously ill. Asked if he intends to continue his ministry, Msgr. Prendergast said, “As long as I am in reasonably good health, yes.”

Aging population

Dioceses and parishes across the United States increasingly need the services of older priests, as there are fewer young priests to provide the sacraments.

Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II (Liturgical Press, 2012), a book by researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, found that the average age of priests in the United States is rising, from 35 in 1970 to 63 in 2009, while at the same time the number of priests was declining.

According the CARA website, the number of priests in the United States declined by about 20,000 — from 58,632 to 38,964 — between 1965 and 2012. At the same time, the number of parishes held almost steady, going from 17,637 to 17,644. However, the number of parishes increased to more than 19,000 in the 1980s and 1990s before dropping again in the 2000s.

When the research for the book ended, the median age for U.S. priests was 59, said Mary Gautier, a senior researcher at CARA.

Extrapolating to today, she said about half of priests in the United States are 65 or older. In 1970, fewer than 10 percent of priests were older than 65.

Faithful examples

The graying of the priesthood has led to many challenges, including that of finding the resources to care for the older men. Also, many priests are becoming pastors much earlier in their ministries than generally happened in the past. This often means they might be the only active priest in their parish, which can lead to isolation. Retired priests can offer company, serve as a sounding board and help lighten the sacramental load.

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Msgr. Francis Maniola, pastor emeritus at St. Symphorosa Parish, celebrated his 75th year as a priest and his 100th birthday at a reception following a Mass celebrated in his honor at the parish on April 20. Karen Callaway/Catholic New World

Such retired priests not only offer the sacraments to the faithful, but they provide a living witness of aging with faith and grace to parishioners who often are getting older and dealing with the challenges and infirmities of advancing age.

Msgr. Francis Maniola is nothing if not a model of faithfulness. The priest, who celebrated his 100th birthday and his 75th anniversary of ordination in April, still participates at Mass every weekend at St. Symphorosa Church in Chicago, taking Communion on the same altar where he has served nearly every weekend since he became pastor of the parish in 1968.

Since then, Msgr. Maniola has baptized and married generations of parishioners, said Marge Garbacz, the parish’s pastoral associate and director of religious education. Msgr. Maniola served as the parish’s third pastor before retiring in 1981. Named pastor emeritus and asked to stay on by the next pastor, Msgr. Maniola never left.

Now he participates in Mass by watching from the sacristy door, approaching the altar for the Our Father and Communion, Garbacz said.

“It’s such a witness of faithfulness,” she said.

Up until this year, Msgr. Maniola blessed many sacramentals and other objects, even after he stopped celebrating Mass publicly and could no longer listen to confessions because he was too hard of hearing.

“He loved to bless things,” Garbacz said. “People would stop by the rectory and we’d call him and he’d come down.”

After a brief hospitalization in January, Msgr. Maniola now has the aid of a caregiver for some daily tasks, but he still joins the parish staff for lunch every day.

“When he was in the hospital, he told everyone, ‘I want to go home,’” Garbacz said. “For him, St. Symphorosa is home.”

Increased availability

Father Walter Kushing also has made a home in retirement of the parish he ran as a pastor. Father Kushing, who will be 83 in June, said his parishioners appreciate that he is available to them.

“The people tell me all the time how grateful they are that I’m still here,” Father Kushing, who ministers at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit, N.Y., told Our Sunday Visitor. He retired about a decade ago, after serving for 21 years as pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Rochester.

St. Cecilia is one of five that were combined to form St. Kateri in 2010, and one of the new parish’s three worship sites.

“I just continue my priestly ministry,” Father Kushing said. “I love the people. I love celebrating the sacraments with the people. I think that’s what keeps me young and gives me energy. Everyone is so nice.”

While Father Kushing doesn’t know everyone in the parish — it’s a large parish — there are many families where he knows members of multiple generations.

He has baptized and married people and buried them and their parents.

“We have a lot of funerals in our parish,” he said. “Over 100 a year. So I do a lot of funerals.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.