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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 can’t 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 Paul’s "Address to the Bishops of the Philippines on Their Ad Limina Visit" when he stated, "To-day’s 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? It’s 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 can’t picture this." It was not the model of priesthood he knew. When the time came for him to leave the parish, he couldn’t 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 can’t Monsignor stay? We’ll 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. I’m 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 wasn’t 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 bishop’s 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[1] 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 didn’t 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 priest’s 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– It’s 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.

End Notes:

[1] 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 3, 2003.

7). Marin, C. (Chicago Tribune, 9-12-03). "The Priest Shortage; When the flock overwhelms the shepherds on the issue of marriage." P. 25.

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

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