Among the heroes in the Church today are holy senior priests who have persevered in their vocation for many years and continue to serve God and others with great love. After retiring from administrative duties, most priests continue to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, visit the sick, and go to help wherever they are needed. It is not really accurate, therefore, to say priests are “retired;” they have only retired from full-time ministry, not their vocation. They remain priests forever.
I believe God gives senior priests the graces they need to serve Him. I have observed priests who did not seem physically strong, walking with difficulty to the altar, who seemed transformed while celebrating Mass, praying aloud with a strong voice, and giving excellent homilies.
There are many examples of dedicated diocesan and religious order senior priests in the diocese where I live. For example, the Franciscan Friars have a chapel in a shopping center where they offer Mass three times each weekday and are available to hear Confession for five hours a day. Most of the priests assigned to the chapel are over the age of seventy-five; two are in their eighties. They are loved and appreciated by everyone who goes to the chapel.
Father St. John, a diocesan priest for sixty-six years, is in residence in an urban parish where he celebrates or concelebrates Mass daily, hears confessions, and assists in other parishes when needed. He has also been a mentor to younger priests who have been assigned to the parish after ordination.
As the pastor emeritus at his church, Father Vaughan celebrates Mass, hears confessions, offers funeral Masses, and visits the sick. Father Vaughan, who has been a priest for sixty-eight years, said he has told God that he would like to keep working in his parish for the rest of his life.
Father O’Connor, a priest for fifty-six years, is the chaplain to a mission church with a Spanish-speaking congregation, celebrates weekday Mass at other churches and at a convent, is the chaplain of a prison ministry, visits the sick, and is involved in ministry to the poor and homeless
Senior priests who are no longer able to remain in active ministry are also an inspiration to us. They demonstrate faith and trust in Jesus during difficult circumstances such as serious health problems or living in a nursing home. They continue to serve the Church by a life of prayer, by offering up their suffering, and by ministering to people in other ways, such as being available to listen and provide spiritual counsel. Even priests with dementia are living their vocation. They never forget God. I have known some priests with this illness who could still concelebrate Mass, pray the Rosary, and give their blessing. Priests also give witness to Jesus, not only by what they do, but because as priests, they represent Him. As the Catechism teaches, “Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers.” (1549)
God gave me the gift of friendship with some wonderful senior priests, who remained very committed to their vocation after they could no longer serve in active ministry because of health problems. The following three priests, who are no longer alive, were spiritual fathers to me, encouraged me to live as a faithful Catholic, and inspired me with their example. I will always be grateful to God for my friendship with these faithful priests.
Father Bede, a retired Franciscan missionary, lived a life of contemplative prayer in a residence for senior friars. His favorite books of the Bible were the Gospel of John and the Letters of John; he often spoke of God’s love for us and our love for God and for others. When he became very ill last year, he asked me to pray, not for his recovery, but that he would be well enough to return to the chapel for daily Mass. After he recovered, he concelebrated Mass every day until a few days before he died in September.
Father Ryan, a diocesan priest for sixty-six years, was also very dedicated to prayer. His favorite activities were visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in the nursing home chapel, and praying the Rosary. During our visits, we spent most of the time praying together.
Father Rooney, a diocesan priest, who also lived in a nursing home, became the first chaplain of the Catholic organization I started and led our weekly meetings. He was my main advisor and also gave advice to my friends who worked in youth ministry. He usually ended our visits by praying night prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours with me and giving me his blessing.
St. John Paul II recognized the contributions of senior priests (and bishops) in his Letter to the Elderly. He wrote: “The Church still needs you. She appreciates the services which you may wish to provide in many areas of the apostolate; she counts on the support of your longer periods of prayer; she counts on your advice born of experience, and she is enriched by your daily witness to the Gospel.”