Mary Gautier, senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), said that she and her co-authors were surprised to see the level of satisfaction of priests surveyed for their new book, “Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $24.95) released in April. More than 95 percent said that if they had to do it all over, they would still be priests. 

What wasn’t a surprise was the evidence of the aging population in the priesthood. 

In 1970, the average age of a diocesan priest was 34. For religious, it was 37. In 2000, that jumped to 59 and 64, respectively, then 62 for diocesan priests and 66 for religious priests in 2009. 

A contributing factor is that men are entering the priesthood later in life — an average age of 27 pre-Vatican II, and 37 from 1992 to present. Another is that after a surge in vocations from the 1940s to the 1960s, fewer men overall are entering the seminary, and those who do tend to be older than before. 

Semi-retirement

According to CARA statistics, in 1908 there were fewer than 20,000 priests in the United States, half of them diocesan and half in religious orders. Vocations were highest in 1969 with 60,000 priests overall, and slightly less than two-thirds of them diocesan. There were 40,000 priests in 2008, nearly 30,000 diocesan. 

By The Numbers
◗ On average, dioceses now have one retired priest for every two active priests 
 
◗ Half of all priests currently in active ministry are older than 60
 
◗ Half of all priests still in active ministry expect to retire by 2019
 
71 - On average, the typical age of eligibility for full retirement benefits in their diocese for responding priests. 
 
3 in 10 - report a higher eligibility rate (usually 75) 
 
15% - report one lower (usually 65)
 
◗ The average age of eligibility for early retirement with benefits, generally for health reasons, is 67
 
64% - retired when they reached an age when it was an option 
 
24% - retired for health reasons 
 
8% - felt pressure from the diocese to remain active beyond the age eligible for retirement
 
Source: Center For Applied Research in the Apostolate, 2009 

“Now there are about 26,000 to 27,000 diocesan priests and about 22 percent are retired, semiretired, sick or absent,” Gautier told Our Sunday Visitor. “Many of them are what’s called semi-retired, so they are receiving some retirement benefits but are still in ministry at some level, most often in parish ministry, but not administration. They are saying Mass, filling in for priests, doing hospital ministry, Masses in nursing homes and things like that, and they like it. One thing we noticed in another study specifically on retired priests is that they like the fact that at retirement, they are relieved of some of those administrative duties. Now they have the opportunity to do what they love the most and meet the sacramental needs of the people.” 

Giving back

Retired priests live in many different places, some in their rectories, their own homes or apartments. Others live with relatives or in retirement villages for priests, and those who are unable to be on their own may go into assisted living or skilled care facilities. 

In the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., 105 of the 407 priests are retired, and 13 live in the Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin Residence. The facility, opened in 2007, is at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield. At the dedication, Archbishop Emeritus Cronin called it “a house of prayer.” 

Each furnished private suite includes a bedroom, sitting area and full bathroom, and there are common rooms for the residents and guests. 

“This is our turn to pay you back in some small way for all that you have given to the Archdiocese,” Archbishop Henry J. Mansell said at the ceremony. “We are grateful for all that you have done to proclaim almighty God.” 

Building up the Church

The 23 retired priests in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., served a total of 1,066 years, and Patricia Guilfoyle, editor of The Catholic News Herald, likes to introduce them to readers who may have never met them. 

Aging Pastors
In 1970, the median age of the workforce was 45. In 2009, the median age of the general workforce was 41.8, but the median age of active diocesan priests was 59. The median age of all priests in the study was 64, which means that half are two years from Social Security, which represents an increased financial pressure in the dioceses.  
 

“They have amazing stories to tell,” she told OSV. “People who have been in the Church for generations, for decades and decades, have so many memories and rich knowledge of their faith and pastoral experiences. It’s amazing to listen to them. Our diocese is only 40 years old, and a lot of these gentlemen have been part of building up their churches.” 

Many were active in the days when there were few Catholics and many churches were missions in outlying areas. But things have changed and the diocese is now growing so fast, Guilfoyle said, “We can’t build churches fast enough.” 

There’s a lot of work to be done through that growth, and the retired priests are stepping in wherever they can to help. 

“They have so much to give,” she said. “Those that can are still working. They don’t stop and they don’t want to stop. Their vocations just don’t end when they retire.” 

Men of prayer, good will

The Archdiocese of Chicago has 214 retired priests, the oldest 102, and about 140 of the 571 active priests are nearing retirement. 

Quote
“You didn’t retire then unless you got too old to work or your health gave in. Usually old priests just stayed at the rectory until God took them. I met so many older priests ... and a lot of them were beyond the age of being able to carry their burdens beyond their ministry. They did the best they could.” 
 

“I have often heard many of the men, if not all, speak of the joy of returning to ministry without administration,” Father James Donovan, executive secretary of the Chicago archdiocese’s Priests’ Placement Board, told OSV. “The essence of their call of ministering to the sick, visiting the homebound and preaching the word is rekindled. Their preaching has the wisdom of age and experience. They appreciate their freedom.” 

They also appreciate being needed for filling in at parishes, and they show a willingness to offer the sacraments. 

“I am amazed at their commitment of being men of prayer and good will,” Father Donovan said. 

The most successful priests in retirement are ones who have other interests, activities and friends beyond their parishes and the people, he told OSV. But then those parish ties still remain. 

“When an elder gets sick and is dying, it becomes a holy time for the parish,” he said. “The sense of gratitude of a life well lived is magnified. The whole parish caring deeply and tenderly for their holy priest creates a bond that does not end on earth.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.