Numbers 8: 23-26
The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”
I remember as a young priest being at a meeting where the retirement age for priests was being discussed. The consensus at the meeting was that 75 was a good age for a man to retire. Being somewhat naïve, and, maybe in those days, a little innocent of the workings of the clerical world I thought it might be useful to share the information that the then life expectancy for a man in Ireland was 72.
You can imagine how the comment was received!
But in many ways that little anecdote sums up the attitude towards the retirement of priests –
‘it’s grand in theory, but please don’t live long enough to do so’.
I suspect that little has really changed over the decades. Looking about the country there is a very mixed bag in how dioceses deal with priests who wish to retire and those who are retired.
It has to be said that this is an issue that’s more relevant for diocesan priests that those belonging to religious orders. Retirement for a diocesan priest means not just giving up a role in a parish but more often than not giving up his home as well, and for many it is a challenge to their very sense of self identity. It can also mean a very uncertain financial future.
In most dioceses the age for retirement is 75, though at least one allows a man to retire at 70, if he so wishes.
I’m going to share another piece of information with you about average life expectancy that could be just as unwelcome now as it was almost 40 years ago. If you retire at 75 you can, on average, expect to live another 4.7 years. That’s according to the World Health Organisation who tell us the average life expectancy of a male in Ireland is now 79.7 years.
So, at what age should priests retire?
It a question that has to be asked and realistically faced. And what provisions should be made for those who retire? And, very importantly, what arrangements should there be for priests who, after long years of service, because of ill health, or for personal reasons, want to retire before the qualifying age.
In any organisation that provides a pension scheme for its employees those questions would be very easily answered by reference to the rules of their pension scheme, a pension scheme that would have been approved by The Pensions Authority.
And such a pension scheme, its operation and its funds, would be independent of the company and would be administered by trustees and not by the CEO or manager.
To my knowledge no diocese operates such an approved pension scheme for its priests.
The Church of Ireland do.
As things stand when it comes to the retirement of priests the terms and conditions largely depend on individual bishops and what they think is best – but is it best as they see it for the diocese or for individual priests?
I can give you one example.
A man of 72 years, having served 45 years for his diocese falls into poor health. He has life saving surgery and after a period of convalescence returns to duty in his parish. During this time a younger sibling dies. He finds after a year struggling that he hasn’t the strength or the energy to continue, that he cannot fulfil his duties and serve his parishioners as he would wish.
After much soul searching and deliberation, and on medical advice, he decides that he cannot continue. He decides it’s not fair to him or his parishioners and that after 45 years service the time has come to step down and retire. He contacts his bishop with his decision.
You might expect he would be met with compassion and understanding and maybe even a little concern.
You might expect that a grateful bishop would express thanks for the years of service and offer his good wishes and those of the diocese for his future health and happiness in retirement.
You might expect that.
But instead he is met with a refusal to accept his retirement. It is only the man’s own inner strength and courage that lets him insist it is the correct course and the one he will follow, but he is then informed that if he does he will receive only very limited financial assistance from the diocese that he has served for some 45 years.
In the heel of the hunt this man has now retired, but only receives a payment of about €340 per month. He is fortunate in that his original family home was available to him to live in. He has access to a further allowance from his diocese to help pay for heat and light and service charges but says he is embarrassed and feels demeaned to have to go cap in hand asking for this every time he needs it.
This approach by his bishop to retirement has left a priest who has given his life to his diocese wondering where he is going to end up and how he will make ends meet.
This is a diocese that, in the past, felt it had the right to demand access to priests’ personal bank accounts and private savings before deciding what it would pay them in retirement.
This priest now believes that there is no concern for his welfare and he feels that some might think it would be more convenient for all concerned if he just died.
His story raises a question, what responsibility has a bishop in such a case? Can he just wing it and make up policy on the fly as he sees fit?
Strictly speaking a bishop is obliged to take care of the priests in the diocese and this is governed by a decree of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
2.1. In accordance with the prescription of Cann. 282 §2 and 538 §3, the Irish Episcopal Conference hereby decrees that, while leaving the details to be worked out in each diocese in accordance with its own circumstances and traditions,
(a) Each diocesan Bishop have a specific and funded scheme, adequately designed to provide worthy maintenance and accommodation for all the infirm, ill, old and retired priests of his diocese;
(b) A number of priest-representatives of the priests of the diocese be actively involved in the administration of the scheme;
(c) The adequacy of the scheme be reviewed regularly.
So, I would suggest that is the starting point for all of us;
- Check that there is such a specific and funded scheme in each diocese;
- Check that the fund is adequate;
- Check that there are priest representatives, who are true representatives and not bishop’s appointees, involved in its administration.
Sadly the case outlined in not unique.
In a different part of the country a man with only months to go to his 75th birthday was refused the right to retire early. He was only asking to be allowed retire a few months early and despite this, his application was refused. Notification of the refusal was received by text message.
In the same diocese another man aged 68, with over 40 years service, because of medical issues and on medical advice, applied to retire. He felt that he was no longer able to meet the demands that were being made of him in parish ministry. Again permission to retire was denied.
In fairness it has to be said that not all bishops or dioceses act in the same way. I know a number of men who have taken early retirement for health reasons and receive the same retirement benefits as all others in their diocese.
The problem is that there is no consistency, that each bishop can act as he sees fit, with the result that priests have no certainty about their retirement. Priests have no rights in this matter and depend on the goodwill, or even the whims, of individual bishops.
This is not just an Irish problem. According to a researcher at Florida Atlantic University, Catholic priests in the United States are in a similar predicament. Michael Kane, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Social Work in Florida Atlantic has published an article entitled “The Taboo of Retirement for Diocesan Catholic Priests,”
He said “The expectation is that the priest will continue to be of service throughout his life until he is physically or cognitively unable to serve. To do otherwise may be perceived as self-indulgent or selfish.”
The result of such expectations is that many are made feel guilty if they wish to retire after long years of service, even if their health is declining.
Kane goes on to say “These days, the bishop has the power to retain the priests he desperately needs,”
The implication is that the needs of the diocese, in terms of numbers of priests to place in parishes, outweighs the needs of an individual priest. Indeed it outweighs the need of parishioners for an adequate service from priests who are mentally and physically able to deliver such service.
We are all aware of sad stories of men who have remained in parishes long after retirement age, with the best of intentions, only to end up being unable to function or minister in any meaningful way.
But if priests are under pressure, from their own or others’ perceptions or from bishops, to remain what choice do they have?
“Of course,” Kane wrote “the priest may walk away from the ministry, but he will probably do so with no financial support or benefit package – even after several decades of service.”
And yes, that happens.
A priest serving in an Irish diocese who on reaching the age of 67 decided that he had given all that he could in parish ministry. Thankfully he is in good health. He applied to his bishop to retire but was left in no doubt that he would receive no financial support despite having served over 40 years.
This man was fortunate in that his original family home was available to him to live in. He now survives on the State Contributory Pension and by doing occasional supply in some parishes. He says that even if the diocese made the gesture of paying for medical insurance it would be a great relief.
It is hard to comprehend the decision making process of a bishop who concludes that this treatment is justified, appropriate or acceptable towards a man who served for over 40 years.
We know that different dioceses have different ways of regulating the salaries of priests. The same applies concerning payments and benefits to retired priests.
One issue that some priests raise is whether a diocese has the right to take private income, including the State Contributory Pension, (The Old Age Pension) into account when deciding rates of payment for retired priests.
Some dioceses do in fact take the State Contributory Pension into account and include it as part of the overall figure available to a retired priest, thereby reducing the payment made by the diocese.
Since 1995 public and civil servants pension schemes do something similar in what is termed an ‘integrated pension’. The state contributory pension is seen as part of the overall retirement package.
Some companies also operate similar schemes. The big difference is that these are employers providing pension schemes for employees and as employers they have already contributed an amount equal to between 8.6% and 10.85% of an employees’ wage in employer’s contribution to PRSI. Each employee would also have paid 4% of their gross wage.
No diocese pays the employer’s PRSI contribution for its priests.
We are regarded as being self employed and pay our own prsi contribution of 4% of income, as do all self-employed workers.
It has to raise the question, has a diocese then a right to include the State Contributory Pension as part of their obligation to support a priest in retirement when in fact they have not contributed in any way towards it.
Another issue arises from this that could lead us off on a tangent, but needs to be considered at some stage. We priests are not regarded as employees but as self-employed and don’t have the legal rights that attach to being an employee.
But are we really self-employed?
It might be interesting to look up the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection’s website about a campaign they are running at present. It’s what they call the ‘false self-employment campaign.’
But at present we are not regarded as employees.
These are just some of the issues that arise concerning retirement of priests.
There are many others including the whole issue of identity and how for some priests this can prevent they ever being able to seriously think of retiring, or being able to envision a life that doesn’t involve the day-to-day business of parish.
Likewise John A. Weaferin his research for his thesis ‘The lived experience of Irish diocesan priests. A qualitative study of clerical identity, obedience and celibacy.’ found that for most priests ‘private identity is deeply embedded in his professional identity, and that he is first and foremost a priest.’
The issue of identity is a huge one for us and is linked of course to the clerical culture that has become attached to priesthood; a culture that promotes priests as being different, not only in life and death but also when it comes to retirement.
The hope today is that we can start a debate that will lead to proper provision being made for priests to retire.
We can start by checking that each diocese is at least fulfilling the decree laid down by the episcopal conference.
Maybe we can also make other suggestions;
- That any priest approaching retirement age seek expert financial advice concerning his future needs before contacting his bishop.
- That any priest seeking to retire early, for any reason, when approaching his bishop bring an advocate with him.
And then, the thorny question, at what age should we retire.
With the growing and never ending bureaucracy being heaped upon us on an almost daily basis the age of Fifty, as laid down by the Book of Numbers, has a certain appeal, but realistically might be just a little too early.
However to start the debate I would seriously suggest that when we reach the qualifying age for the state contributory pension we should have the option to retire.
That age is currently 66, it will increase to 67 for those born in 1955, and to 68 for those born in 1961 and after.
In reality I don’t think too many would choose the option to retire at that age but having the option would respect the years of service of those priests who would like to do so, and would allow them retire with dignity and without guilt.
If a priest decides to continue in parish ministry after that age I suggest that he would have to retire from all administrative roles in parish and continue solely in a pastoral and sacramental ministry.
If we are truly serious about empowering the laity of the church, and dismantling the clerical power structure, we should at any rate be moving towards the situation where the lay members of parishes would fulfil all administrative roles. By having a definite date when it has to happen in a parish would allow for adequate planning and a period of transition.
From a bishop’s point of view having priests free from the burden of bureaucracy and administration could increase their longevity in pastoral and sacramental ministry.
Further, I would suggest that after age 70 if a priest wishes to remain in active pastoral and sacramental ministry a decision about this would have to be made at regular intervals. This decision would happen in a process of consultation involving the bishop and the individual priest, other priests who serve with him, parishioners, and if necessary with medical practitioners, as to the fitness of the priest to continue in active ministry.
Paramount in this decision would be the needs and best interests of the parish community, having due regard and respect for the years of service given by an individual priest.
We need to start the debate and bring forward definite recommendations as quickly as possible. One of the things that might prevent us doing so is the notion that we are somehow different, that we cannot compare our role as priests with other jobs or careers.
If that is how we approach this subject we need to be careful that we are not falling into the old clerical fault of presuming we are different from the rest of humanity.
Ordination does not remove the frailties we share with all of humanity, does not mean we do not grow old, that joints and limbs grow stiff, that muscles waste, and that we eventually become less agile in body and mind.
Old age and retirement is a stage in life, just like other life stages of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age.
Planning for retirement, knowing the resources that will be available to us, helps to ease the move from one life stage into the next.
It’s not one we should be afraid of, or try to deny. It’s part of being mortal.
Let’s start a discussion.
The Taboo of Retirement for Diocesan Catholic Priests, Michael N. Kane,
Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. https://doi.org/10.1177/1542305016635540